Religion, Ideology and the Court

On Friday the last Protestant on the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice John Paul Stevens, announced his retirement (about time - he turns 90 next week) and once again opened up all sorts of speculation on who President Obama would nominate to fill his seat. A USA Today article titled "Does the U.S. Supreme Court need another Protestant?" posits that we cannot make these assumptions about judges and their brand of religion:
  • That everyone lives -- and judges rule -- in accord with that brand.
  • That even if they were formed in one childhood faith, they haven't come to see the world, or that religion differently
  • That they will -- or will not -- impose their personal faith views on the entire nation with their rulings.
The article specifically addresses the difference on the court between Roman Catholics (there are six of them) saying:
"Justices Sotomayor and Antonin Scalia are both Catholic but their interpretation of living the faith -- social justice emphasis on the left or traditionalist on the right -- seems quite different."
I guess I understand that.. generally speaking Christians do not walk in lock-step agreement on many issues that the courts face. Even if a protestant would be nominated their religion would probably not be a predictable reflection of their views. So maybe religion is a mute point? Maybe it should be? Maybe the focus should be on the qualifications instead of their religion or ideology?

Yes - I am dreaming. Of course ideology will be a big part of the selection. Interesting though.. Justice Stevens was thought to be a conservative leaning jurist when he was selected by (republican) President Ford. And justices Kennedy and O'Connor were thought to be more conservative when (republican) President Reagan nominated them to the high court. It is difficult to know how a person will act based purely on their ideology or religion.

What do you think? Should ideology or religion be a factor in selecting a judge?


  1. Predicting a justice's ideology (as you note) is hardly an exact science. The influence of their religious beliefs is even less so.

    Still, until justice is completely blind, these are elements that give us some insight into how they MIGHT rule on certain cases.

    Selection should not rest solely on these, but they should certainly be taken into consideration (along with qualifications, history of decisions, etc) to the extent that they might influence future judicial decisions.

  2. From Bill:

    As a Catholic, I would like to think that my Catholic background would guide my decisions on the Supreme Court. I could not imagine a circumstance that would convince me to vote FOR abortion or FOR the death penalty. Yet we currently have 6 Catholic justices (Thomas, Alito, Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, and Sotomayor) and Roe vs. Wade is still there and is in no danger of being repealed. Scalia's votes on the death penalty give you the impression he would gladly pull the switch. In other words, religious beliefs have no bearing on how a justice will vote. You have to have a conscience first.

  3. Interesting way to put it Bill. Most my consider religious folks for be people that have a conscience.

  4. Make that - Most might consider religious folks to be people that have a conscience.


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