COLUMBIA — The nomination of U.S. Circuit Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court has raised questions about her legal background and how she might rule on issues concerning religion.
If appointed, Sotomayor would become the first Hispanic and the third female in U.S. history to serve on the high court. As a Democrat and a Roman Catholic, Sotomayor's nomination has caused much dialogue concerning her political alignment and many see her as having moderate views.
With the addition of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court, Catholics would have the majority. Here's the religious makeup of the existing court, according to Adherents.com.
John Roberts, chief justice: Catholic
Anthony M. Kennedy, Catholic
Anonin Scalia, Catholic
Samuel Alito, Catholic
Clarence Thomas, Catholic
David H. Souter, Episcopalian (retiring justice)
John Paul Stevens, Protestant
Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Jewish
Stephen G. Breyer, Jewish
In a news release, Richard Reuben, a professor at the MU School of Law and a U.S. Supreme Court specialist, commented on the significance of her background.
“Judge Sotomayor is a liberal centrist who may be influential in helping Justice (Anthony) Kennedy, a conservative centrist and often the swing vote on the court’s closest issues, see things from a different perspective,” he said. “Kennedy cares deeply about the impact of the court’s work on people’s lives, and seeing this perspective may move Justice Kennedy in particular cases, not necessarily away from the conservative majority, but toward more moderate opinions.”
However, some have worried about Sotomayor’s Catholic background and how it might shape her policies, especially involving abortion issues. If Sotomayor becomes the next Supreme Court justice, she will be the sixth Catholic of nine justices.
Richard Garnett, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, said Sotomayor signals a positive shift away from the prejudice and stereotypes that Roman Catholics faced in the past, when it was often said the Catholic Church was a threat to American values.
Garnett said he does not think that a judge's Catholicism requires any particular ruling in a case. He also noted that, because Judge Sotomayor is a Democrat, there will probably be less speculation about the influence of her faith on hot-button topics than was the case when John Roberts was nominated.
"Judge Sotomayor, like any judge, should do her best to apply the law impartially," Garnett said. "There is no teaching in Catholicism that says a Catholic judge should try to reach a distinctly 'Catholic' result."
The predominance of Catholics on the court worries some, yet others such as Garnett, think that this might not be the true issue at hand.
“For some of us, the concern is not her Catholicism, but her understanding of the judicial role," Garnett said. "It is a mistake to focus too much on a judge's personal identity and experiences, or to emphasize 'empathy' for one party or another. A judge, like the law, should be impartial."
The Baptist Joint Committee, a committee of different Baptist groups dedicated to upholding the separation of church and state, wants to learn more about Sotomayor’s record and confirmation hearings, according to the committee’s statement concerning her nomination.
One of the committee’s main concerns centers on how Sotomayor would react to the separation of church and state while in office. Sotomayor would replace Justice David Souter, a justice the committee has admired for consistently upholding the separation of church and state in his decisions.
"More than any other justice, Justice Souter has reflected the Baptist Joint Committee's understanding of the proper interpretation of the religion clauses and how they apply to contemporary church-state issues," said J. Brent Walker, the committee’s executive director, in the statement.
Cynthia Holmes, an attorney in St. Louis and chair of the Religious Liberty Council of the Baptist Joint Committee, said the committee would look closely at the nomination, and right now it is premature to say much more. The committee has a stance of neither endorsing nor opposing any political candidates.
“She seems like a good choice based on her background,” she said.
Holmes also said she hopes that, if nominated, Sotomayor would keep religious liberty for all in mind. “My family and other families want to be free to practice their religion.”
Sotomayor’s case record for her service on the U.S. District Court forSouthernNew York andthe 2nd U.S.Circuit Court of Appeals emphasized a stance leaning toward protecting First Amendment rights and the separation of church and state.
In a 2003 ruling, Ford v. McGinnis, Sotomayor upheld an Islamic inmate’s right to religion when she voted to reverse a lower court decision that denied him a meal important to the practice of Islam.
In the 2006 case Hankins v. Lyght, Sotomayor's opinion overturned a decision in an age discrimination case that a Methodist clergyman made against the denomination. She said the Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not apply to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and that the church, not the government, should decide these issues when it is between two individuals and not the organization and government.
Senior Pastor John D. Baker of the First Baptist Church in Columbia said of Sotomayor, “I would hope that she would maintain separation of church and state. The two entities will always flavor each other, but they shouldn’t be combined. ”
Sister Francine Koehler, who works with the Hispanic Ministry of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, said there needs to be a separation of church and state, which is especially hard when the issues of morality are not so “black and white.” She said she believes that it is a success to have had a Hispanic woman chosen.
Many individuals within Columbia’s religious groups and organizations have heralded Sotomayor rise from an impoverished background.
“I’m thrilled that we have a Hispanic and another woman,” Baker said, “and for those reasons I feel quite good” about Obama's decision.
Also supporting the nomination is the Rev. Paula Robinson of Calvary Episcopal Church in Columbia. Robinson said she believes strongly in individuals in her congregation making their own decisions about these matters, but that she was excited for another woman to take such a position.
“She represents two constituencies whose voices need to be heard,” Robinson said of Sotomayor. “And she comes from poverty and will testify for those people as well.”
Robinson agrees that the separation of church and state is important.
“We as a church have a canon law, but I am also bound by a common law so it should be separated,” Robinson said.
Vince Blubaugh of the Missouri Baptist Convention said in an e-mail that Sotomayor “being considered to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, the highest court in our land, is testimony as to how far we have come as a nation in the opportunities we offer all of our citizens.”
The Missouri Baptist Convention wants the government to respect the ideals of its followers, but would respect the court’s decisions.
“As conservative evangelical Christians, we certainly hope that whoever fills the Supreme Court vacancy represents our values,” Blubaugh said in an e-mail. “However, we are committed to pray for all our elected and appointed leaders. We also have confidence in the long established appointment process of our federal government.”
Garnett, the Notre Dame law professor, said that while his understanding of law and judging is different from Sotomayor’s, he believes she is accomplished and talented. However, he said parties to a case should not have to worry that she might follow her sympathies, rather than the law.
Robinson had a different view.
“Her records tend to say she has a listening ear, and if that’s empathy that’s fine for me. Because I would want empathy for both the victim and the alleged perpetrator.”