Thursday, February 22, 2007

Gerhardt on the Catholic-Majority Court

Courtesy of Mirror of Justice comes a link to a paper by Michael Gerhardt of Duke, titled Why the Catholic Majority on the Supreme Court May Be Unconstitutional. Here are some relevant snippets from the introduction:

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In this Essay, I examine two ways in which our national leaders may have damaged the rule of law in the ways in which they appointed the current Catholic majority on the Roberts Court. First, [in] their zeal to control the Court through their appointments to the Court our national political leaders demonstrated (perhaps unintentionally) a regrettable faith in the rule of law. . . . The problem with insisting that the maintenance of a government of laws depends on appointing people with the right kinds of ideological commitments is that it sacrifices another principle on which our faith in our system of government of laws in turn depends. I call this other principle the golden rule of constitutional law: On the Supreme Court, justices recognize that they must treat others' precedents as they would like their precedents -- the ones with which they approve -- to be treated.

A second, serious problem with the current Catholic majority on the Court is that the appointments which made it possible may have been unconstitutional. The selections of some if not all of these justices may have violated several constitutional prohibitions -- Article VI's express prohibition of religious tests for federal office, the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause, and perhaps the First Amendment's prohibition against the establishment of religion -- especially as these prohibitions would likely be construed by the current Catholic majority of the Court.

* * * * *

A short but interesting and provocative paper. I'm especially interested in the second argument, given that I have an article on similar themes, but which comes to very different conclusions, coming out shortly in the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal. My own view is that the Religious Test Clause does not prohibit the kinds of activities Gerhardt talks aboout -- essentially, Presidents or others using religion as a proxy for or indicator of a particular kind of character, jurisprudential or otherwise, when selecting and approving Justices. I won't elaborate on that argument here. Suffice it to say for now that Gerhardt's argument here relies substantially on the view that the current majority would rely on a plain meaning reading of the Religious Test Clause, and that this clause unambiguously forbids the kind of conduct he is discussing here. I disagree that the clause is unambiguous in a plain-meaning sense. Like many constitutional provisions, it is a term of art, whose meaning must be filled in at least partially by a sense of the historical understanding of the phrase. And that history, along with a variety of policy arguments, counsel a narrower reading of the clause, and certainly don't suggest that Presidents or Congresses are forbidden to consider the moral and personal character of judicial nominees, for which religion is one valid indicator.

Those who are more sympathetic to his argument might consider that he generally appears to believe that Presidents and Congresses engaging in the fully discretionary selection and approval of Justices (and other government officials) are bound by not just the Test Clause, but by Fifth Amendment Equal Protection, at least in a Constitution-outside-the-courts way. So are Thurgood Marshall, Clarence Thomas, and Sandra Day O'Connor also potentially unconstitutional? Not to mention all the white male Justices throughout history who were chosen in the context of a broader unwillingness to consider members of certain races or genders as potential Justices? Or the Clinton cabinet, which its designers said should "look like America?" Or the Bush 43 cabinet, which does look like America?

9 comments:

KipEsquire said...

Huh?

For the first 127 years of the Court's existence we had nothing but Christians on the Court. Why was no one crying "religious test" during that whole period?

We still have a perfect track record of having nothing but monotheists on the Court.

Suddenly becoming concerned about "Catholics" is hopelessly underinclusive reasoning.

And, last time I checked, the President's appointment power is plenary -- as is the confirmation power of the Senate.

When Congress passes a law restricting the President's appointment power, then I might raise an eyebrow.

Meanwhile, what's far more interesting -- at least as a question of history -- was the debate over Cardozo's appointment and the (sotto voce) concern over having two Jews on the Court, which was then followed by the "Jewish seat" debate in subsequent decades.

Madisonian said...

I must confess that my skepticism about this piece was only confirmed when, in footnote 32, the author gives as an example of Justice Scalia's commitment to strictly enforcing the Sixth Amendment's confrontation clause County of Riverside v. McClaughlin -- a case about the Fourth Amendment. Not terribly impressive. This is a silly piece, which tries to dress up a garden-variety animosity to this Administration's judicial selections in constitutional garb -- and utterly fails to make anything like a convicing case.

Sobek said...

What a silly argument. Is he suggesting that Ted Kennedy (a Catholic, but of decidedly different views than, say, Scalia) can't sit on the Court? Because somehow his religion serves as a proxy for understanding his beliefs?

There's another ramification here that bothers me. If you get four Catholics on the Court, and the President nominates a fifth, but that fifth is restricted by the Constitution from sitting on the Court because of his religion, how is that somehow less offensive to the religious test clause? Are the almost 80 million Catholics in America forbidden from sitting on the Court now?

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