WASHINGTON -- Even before President Trump announced his nomination Monday of federal appeals court Judge Brett Kavanaugh to fill departing Justice Anthony Kennedy’s slot on the Supreme Court, the foul scent of anti-Catholicism began seeping into public commentary.
In particular, an article Monday morning that quickly earned ire in the choir came from Daily Beast writer (and Yale Law-educated) Jay Michaelson. While declaring that he didn’t want to engage in anti-papist conspiracies, Michaelson nevertheless proceeded to suggest that an effort is fueled by dark money to name federal judges who “reflect rigid, conservative dogma.” His subject was Leonard Leo, the executive vice president (albeit currently on leave) of the Federalist Society, which has worked closely with the president in creating a list of possible nominees. The well-respected Leo is painted by Michaelson as a sinister, outside secret force pushing Catholics to fill the bench.
Leo is certainly influential, but so are lots of people, and Michaelson’s article was a tad dark-and-stormy-ish. It details Leo’s various Catholic associations and practices, including his habit of attending daily mass -- which many Catholics do, including liberals.
The narrative that has been building among some on the left and exemplified by Michaelson’s article seems to go something like this: The Republican nomination process has been outsourced to a crazy, right-wing group. To the contrary, the Federalist Society is recognized as the nation’s foremost champion of America’s constitutional principles: Above all, the sovereignty of the people, the duty of the state to preserve their freedom, and the separation of powers. It is primarily a debating society that is open and transparent.
Since religion has become a sticking point in the Supreme Court selection process, primarily over fears that Roe vs. Wade might be overturned (it won’t, though whittling is likely), it seems fair to mention that Michaelson is a Buddhist rabbi. For the record, I’m a lapsed Presbyterian, which isn’t possible to make interesting much less to suggest a complex web of factors that cast doubt on my objectivity.
Michaelson also may have missed the strong anti-Trump sentiment among legions of Catholics -- Trump’s approval rating among Catholics was 38 percent in January -- as well as not a few church leaders who’ve criticized the president.
It is certainly true that jurists who received Jesuit educations tend to rise to the top. This is because, as far as I can tell, you can’t get a better education in this country than by the Jesuits. They seem to produce not just test takers but thinkers. As Francis X. Rocca, Vatican correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, tweeted Tuesday: “A Jesuit-educated U.S. president (Fordham U.) has now nominated two Jesuit-educated men (Georgetown Prep.) to the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the first Jesuit pope reigns in Rome. In another age, conspiracy theorists would be theorizing.”
There’s no question the bench is heavily weighted with lawyers who are also Catholic. Others include Justice Samuel Alito, Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Chief Justice John Roberts. Neil Gorsuch, who replaced Justice Antonin Scalia, also Catholic, attends an Episcopal Church but was raised Catholic. If confirmed, Kavanaugh would be Catholic Justice No. 6, leaving Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, all Jewish.
Part of the reasoning behind Kavanaugh’s selection over reported finalist Amy Coney Barrett, in addition to his being exceedingly qualified, was that he’d likely have an easier, though still difficult, time during Senate confirmation. Barrett, as many will recall, was treated to a religious grilling during her confirmation hearings last year for the federal appellate judgeship she currently holds. Her likely disappointment at being passed over for the highest court was surely buffered somewhat by relief that she would be spared a repeat of her last experience when Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., infamously commented that Barrett’s “dogma lives loudly” in her.
Are we to assume that Sotomayor’s dogma lives quietly rearranging dusty Bibles within her?
It does seem, however, that being Catholic isn’t a bad idea if you want to ascend to the Supreme Court. Then again, it’s also a good idea to earn high marks in school, excel at the best law schools, clerk for Supreme Court justices, and live a life of integrity, honesty and dignity. That some justices are also informed by a faith that encourages service and a reverence for life doesn’t bother me, just as long as the U.S. Constitution lives loudly within them.
Kathleen Parker’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.