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Friday, April 9, 2010

Religion and the Supremes

The Supreme Court will be changing again. To no one’s surprise, 89-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens has announced he will be retiring this summer.

This puts the ball in President Obama’s court.  Obama, like all presidents, will proclaim that his only object in nominating a new justice is to find the most qualified person for the job. But various ascribed and achieved personal characteristics of candidates will inevitably come into play. There are many population segments that could, and perhaps will, claim that they need more representation on the court: Asians, women, blacks, gay and lesbians, and so forth. How Obama balances all of this in his decision-making will be fascinating to watch.

At the moment, it will be noted, there is one black on the Supreme Court, no Asians, just two women, one Hispanic, and no one who is openly gay or lesbian. Obama’s last appointment was female and of Hispanic background.

Now, an additional consideration has cropped up as part of the discussion. Religion.

Some observers have taken note of the fact that, with Stevens’ retirement, there will be no Protestants or other non-Catholic Christians on the Supreme Court. Six of the remaining eight justices are Catholic. Two are Jewish. At the moment, that means that 67% of the U.S. Supreme Court is Catholic and 22% is Jewish.

This proportionality is, of course, widely different from the religious composition of the overall U.S. population. My latest calculation from over 350,000 Gallup Daily tracking interviews conducted in 2009 is that 24.3% of American adults identify their religion as Catholic and that 1.8% identify as Jewish. By far the largest group of Americans, religiously speaking, are Protestant/non-Catholic Christians -- 54% of all adult Americans in our 2009 data. After Stevens steps down, this group will have no representation on the court.

Also. Beyond Protestant/non-Catholic Christians and Catholics, the next most prevalent group in America is the 15.3% who say they have no religious identity, or who don’t otherwise give a response to our religion question. I don’t know how many potential nominees will openly say they have no religious identity. But presumably, some observers may argue that this group of atheist/non-believers also deserves their place on the court.


Anonymous said...
April 10, 2010 at 3:32 PM  

It's worth noting that there's a reason why there are six Catholics on the Supreme Court. Just look at who appointed the first five: Reagan appointed Scalia and Kennedy, the first Bush appointed Thomas, and the second Bush appointed Roberts and Alito. All were chosen in the hope that they'd be staunch conservatives. The sixth one, Justice Sotomayor, was chosen in part because she added diversity to the court as a Hispanic Woman; the fact that she's a Catholic was incidental.

The only non-Catholic justice appointed by a Republican president since 1981 was David Souter, an Episcopalian, and he was the greatest disappointment to the conservative movement because he turned out to be rather moderate. The only non-Catholics remaining on the court were chosen by Bill Clinton, the only Democratic president between 1981 and 2009.

There's also a good reason why there are two Jewish justices. Jews have often made up a high percentage of the legal profession. This dates back to the middle ages, when the law was one of the only professions generally open to Jews. Despite that fact, Jews were excluded from the Supreme Court and other institutions (including the American Bar Association) until the 20th Century.

From the 1920's to the 1940's there were typically two Jewish justices, and President Lyndon Johnson even nominated Associate Justice Abe Fortas to become Chief Justice at the end of his second term. But that nomination was killed in the Senate by a coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats, and Fortas resigned. From 1969 until the nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by President Clinton in 1993, there were no Jews on the Supreme Court.

Rob said...
April 10, 2010 at 9:01 PM  

We're creating a court; not a focus group

Anonymous said...
April 11, 2010 at 10:31 AM  

This article also fails to announce that of the 54% of Americans who claim to be Protestant/non-Catholic Christians are also made up of 13% of the countries minority population. Since when did I(we) live in a country where as Americans it has become, in basic, the law to have all minorities in any Government office? The problem with this country is that we have failed to realize it's a better country when we put people in office that are qualified. Not because of color, race or lifestyle, but because the're qualified for the job. I jumped on the bandwagon of CHANGE and now wish I didn't. President Obama has giving proof for me that qualified is better than status. The Supreme Court is the highest branch of law. That, to me, is a very important part of my life. The Supreme Court is the end to my constitutional rights if we continue to put judges that qualify for emotions over law. The more this country continues to diversify because of race, religion, color or lifestyle, the more seperated we will become as a people. Does anybody remember when a conservative black judge was to be nominated, the Liberals went after him? Can you imaging what they'll do if a conservative protestant is to be nominated? Our system isn't fair at all. Thanks.

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