Time to Diversify the Judiciary

The federal judiciary is receiving a lot of attention recently, especially since the Supreme Court is set to determine the fate of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in the very near future. This decision, pooled with the recent scuffle over the contraceptive care mandate issued by the Obama Administration, has propelled the judicial branch to the forefront of everyone's minds.

With this increased visibility comes a reminder that the federal judiciary is a vital institution with extraordinary power over our laws and their application. This power necessitates that those who serve as federal judges are impartial defenders of our Constitution and staunch protectors of our civil rights and liberties.

Unfortunately, many current judges don't meet this standard. Instead, we find a number of judges who are often partisan defenders of a particular ideology and are attempting to inject their sectarian religious beliefs into our nation's legal precedents.

George W. Bush dramatically worsened this problem of judicial bias by appointing expressly conservative Catholic judges and fundamentalist Protestant Christian judges to the federal courts. Bush broke from the longstanding process of seeking recommendations from the American Bar Association, and went on to appoint a monolithic set of ultra-conservative judges.

Examples of Bush's legal legacy include Bill Pryor, Michael McConnell, and James Leon Holmes. Bush appointed Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor for a seat on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, even though Pryor was notorious for his defense of Judge Roy Moore's fight to post the Ten Commandments in his Alabama courthouse. Bush appointed Michael McConnell to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, even though McConnell's defense of religious "free exercise" led him to criticize a Supreme Court ruling that revoked Bob Jones University's tax-exempt status because of its ban on interracial dating. McConnell saw the situation as a failure "to intervene to protect religious freedom from the heavy hand of government." Bush also nominated James Leon Holmes, who compared pro-choice advocates to Nazis, to be a federal judge for the Eastern District of Arkansas. Holmes also said that abortion is "the simplest issue this country has faced since slavery was made unconstitutional."

These nominations, and subsequent confirmations, are just a few examples of a wider problem that plagues our nation. Our judiciary is being subverted by partisan judges, many of whom are now actively working to favor religious institutions at the expense of the Constitution and our civil rights.

The way to fix this problem is through the nomination and confirmation of judges who have a firm commitment to the mutually beneficial separation of church and state. These judges might come from a wide range of political beliefs, but their one uniting aspect should be the collective understanding of the necessity of a rigid wall of separation between our government and religious institutions.

This is not to say that religion should not be permitted a place in the public square. Individuals, as well as churches and other religious institutions, are welcome to profess their religious values in public. Kids have the right pray to themselves at appropriate times in public school, and speak of their faith in graduations and other important ceremonies. And churches can erect all the religious symbols and holiday ornaments they like on their properties, which frequently exist in the centers of towns.

However, it is extremely important that federal judges are capable of putting aside their religious biases when deciding cases that affect millions of Americans who adhere to many different religions and to no religion at all. By appointing such federal judges, the government would endorse no religion, nor would it endorse atheism. This judicial neutrality will enable government to maintain its legitimacy and freedom.

There is still plenty of room on the bench to appoint secular and religiously diverse judges who understand the First Amendment, as nearly 1 in 8 federal judgeships are empty at the moment. While some see these vacancies as a threat to the ability of our judiciary to function, these openings also present an opportunity for our nation to progress toward a more just and unbiased society.

We must capitalize on this moment and insist that the judicial vacancies are filled with capable judges that will uphold the Constitution and ensure that our government protects all of its citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof. Failing to do so would effectively hand our government over to partisan ideologues who are more interested in spreading their religion than maintaining good government for all.

3/18/2012 4:00:00 AM
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  • Roy Speckhardt
    About Roy Speckhardt
    Roy Speckhardt is the Executive Director of the American Humanist Association. He is also a board member of the organization providing Humanists leadership training, the Humanist Institute, and an advisory board member of Secular Student Alliance. Follow him at http://twitter.com/americnhumanist.