High court: higher power?

Bloggers everywhere cringed after Radar falsely claimed Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts was stepping down. “JGR would sooner die-literally-than give Obama the chance to appoint his successor,” said one expert. Supreme Court replacements are, as Ron Burgundy might say, kind of a big deal. That is why Justice John Paul Stevens, who turns 90 next month, is receiving some buzz treatment from media outlets like the Washington Post.

If Justice John Paul Stevens decides to call it a career after he turns 90 next month, the Supreme Court would for the first time in its history be without a justice belonging to America’s largest religious affiliations.

Perhaps that would mean only that religion is no longer important in the mix of experience and expertise that a president seeks in a Supreme Court nominee. There was a time, of course, in which there was a “Catholic seat” on the court, followed in 1916 with the appointment of the court’s first Jew. The days when one of each seemed sufficient are long over.

So when a Protestant no longer sits on the court, religion will no longer be considered an important factor? I’m not sure one follows another. What the reporter Robert Barnes probably means is that religion won’t necessarily be considered a make-or-break factor for President Obama’s next appointment. But to toss religion aside as unimportant seems flippant.

The reporter then chronicles justice’s respective religious affiliations.

But if the statistics are easy to assemble, the answer to the question “So what?” is elusive.

Supreme Court scholars, political scientists and constitutional experts have long debated how the religion of modern justices affects their decisions on the bench, with results that can only be categorized as negligible or inconclusive.

Yes, that “So what?” question is key. A justice probably won’t cite his or her religion as a reason for upholding a partial-birth abortion ban, but religion could hold more subtle influence on the justices. I find it hard to believe that there are no debates over religion and the Supreme Court worth discussing, even if they are “negligible or inconclusive.”

Barnes explores some obvious reasons as to why religion might make a difference.

The Catholic majority that in 2007 endorsed a law restricting abortion also staunchly defended the death penalty. The lone member of the court who has said he now believes capital punishment violates the Constitution, in fact, is Stevens, who has always been one of the most adamant about separating church and state.

Barnes seems frustrated that his Supreme Court friends don’t fit into neat categories like religion does. Oh wait.

“Clearly, the court thinks of itself as post-religious,” Barnes writes, recounting instances of when the justices have distanced themselves from their respective faiths. But does that necessarily mean they are post-religious? I wish he had elaborated on what he means by post-religious. The story quotes just one scholar, which isn’t horrible per se, but I would’ve found the story more compelling if we heard less from Barnes and more from someone who, say, spends his or her life studying this stuff.

Finally, Barnes begins to wrap up his article with an assumption that caught me off guard.

As religions become more politically active, it is natural for the public to wonder about the influence on the court.

Are particular religions rising up politically all of a sudden and I missed the trending topic on Twitter? Please explain.

Perhaps instead of looking at the political ramifications of having a non-Protestant Supreme Court justice, the reporter could have have explored how did we got to the point where some of the nation’s top judges happen to be Catholic. For instance, did it result from a Catholic emphasis on public service versus private practice?

I’m assuming a copy editor wrote the headline, “High Court: Does religion still matter?” Um, yes. An individual’s religion, or lack thereof, matters in all areas of life. Now, it might not matter in the areas where the reporter is concerned (whether the justice’s religion means he or she will decide a court case one way or another).

Because religion matters, the disappearing Protestant justice on the Supreme Court should be a major story, if only because the court’s religious diversity is diminishing. How much does it matter and why does it matter? Those are tricky questions for more reporters to explore.

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  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    That death penalty and abortion bit makes me wonder if the reporter doesn’t realize the church treats those issues a bit differently.

  • Gregory

    “If Justice John Paul Stevens decides to call it a career after he turns 90 next month, the Supreme Court would for the first time in its history be without a justice belonging to America’s largest religious affiliations.”

    This sentence is horrible. America’s two largest religious affiliations are ex-Catholics and Catholics. What was he trying to say?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    There might be some good stories for the MSM in looking at how some extreme liberal political internet sites are frothing at the keyboard as much as the fundamentalist Protestant sites are over there being a Catholic majority on the Supreme Court.

  • Martha

    “If Justice John Paul Stevens decides to call it a career …the Supreme Court would for the first time in its history be without a justice belonging to America’s largest religious affiliations.”

    Ummm… so that means that the rest of them are not belonging to any of “America’s largest religious affiliations”? Didn’t I see some hyperventilating about the number of Roman Catholics on the bench? Such as a cartoon by Tony Auth in the “Philadelphia Inquirer” of April 20th, 2009, depicting seven of the nine wearing mitres?

    And Wikipedia tells me that:

    “According to a 2007 Pew Research Center survey, the following is the order of religious preferences in the United States:

    Christianity: (78.5%)

    Protestantism (51.3%)
    Roman Catholicism (23.9%)
    Mormonism (1.7%)
    Jehovah’s Witnesses (0.7%)
    Orthodox Church (0.6%)
    Other Christian (0.3%)

    Unaffiliated, including atheist or agnostic (16.1%)
    Judaism (1.7%)
    Buddhist (0.7%)
    Islam (0.6%)
    Hinduism (0.4%)
    Other (1.2%)”

    So if they’re really worried about lack of representation, seems like they need to appoint a couple of Southern Baptists :-)

  • Martha

    “(T)he reporter could have have explored how did we got to the point where some of the nation’s top judges happen to be Catholic.”

    That’s easy, Sarah. It’s the Jesuits. It’s *always* the Jesuits, except when it’s Opus Dei ;-)

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Um, yes. An individual’s religion, or lack thereof, matters in all areas of life. Now, it might not matter in the areas where the reporter is concerned (whether the justice’s religion means he or she will decide a court case one way or another).

    …which, not to be snarky, I kinda thought was implied by the context. “High Court” and all.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Ray, when you say context, do you mean in the Washington Post? What I meant was that you can’t necessarily point to a person’s religion and then determine that they will decide xyz on a case. You can, however, acknowledge that it contributes to how they understand life and how they reason things. Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear, but does that make more sense?