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Slate's Frame Game: Politics and Catholic Judges


And now to the Supreme Court. President Bush's new nominee for the court, Judge Samuel Alito, is meeting with Democratic senators today to explain his judicial philosophy. If Alito is confirmed, the balance on the nation's highest court will definitely shift--the religious balance, that is. Alito would become the fifth Catholic on the nine-member court, an institution that has, for most of its history, been dominated by Protestants. Will Saletan writes on the politics of abortion for the online magazine Slate. He thinks the move toward Catholic justices reflects something larger going on within the Republican Party. Will spoke earlier about this with my colleague Noah Adams.

NOAH ADAMS reporting:

Will Saletan, all the Catholic justices on the court were nominated by Republican presidents. Remind us who they are.

Mr. WILL SALETAN (Slate Magazine): Well, they are Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, now we have John Roberts and the fifth would be Judge Samuel Alito.

ADAMS: Now what about Sandra Day O'Connor? O'Connor, I guess, is her husband's name. It's a good Irish name.

Mr. SALETAN: Yup, but, in fact, Sandra Day O'Connor is Episcopalian, and, in fact, since she was appointed to the court in 1981, there has been only one other Protestant appointed to the court and that was Judge David Souter, now Justice David Souter, in 1990.

ADAMS: Well, to the issue at hand here, not all Catholic jurists would hold the same views on abortion. But, in your view, why is it that anti-abortion presidents seem to increasingly look to selecting a Catholic justice?

Mr. SALETAN: Well, it's not exactly clear what their motives are. If you look at the external evidence, though, the Catholic justices who are appointed by Republican presidents turn out to be much more reliable voters against abortion and in favor of laws restricting abortion than the Protestant justices appointed by Republicans. It's not exactly clear why that is. You know, certainly Catholics don't vote as a monolithic block on the bench any more than they do at the polls, but conservative Catholics seem to, the evidence indicates, be more reliable on that issue than the conservative Protestants. And furthermore, when you appoint a Catholic justice, when the liberals come out and criticize that justice--that potential justice as being too far to the right on abortion, as inevitably happens, you can point to them and say they are being anti-Catholic in a way that you just can't do for Protestants, who are not considered to be a vulnerable minority in this country.

ADAMS: Now we'll recall here that President Bush did speak about the religion--the Protestant religion of his previous nominee, Harriet Miers. Does that mean we are more likely to have a discussion of Judge Alito's religion?

Mr. SALETAN: Well, I don't think so, not if the White House has its way. You have to remember that the White House brought up Harriet Miers' religion and, in her case, she was an evangelical Protestant, not a Catholic. But they did that because they had to, because she didn't have a judicial record. She had not been on the bench and had not shown how she would vote on some of the issues that were important to pro-lifers. So you had all these feelers put out by the White House saying, `Well, but look at the church she goes to.' They had to resort to that kind of personal evidence, and that put them at a pretty severe disadvantage.

With Judge Alito they have a record. He has voted against abortion rights in some important cases and that reassures conservatives. So the White House now has the luxury of sitting back, not bringing up his religion and waiting for some Democratic senator, as will inevitably happen, to criticize Judge Alito and raise the question of whether he's going to impose some conservative morality on the rest of us, at which point all of the Republicans in the White House can stand up and say, `Aha, you were applying a religious litmus test, an anti-Catholic litmus test.'

ADAMS: Opinion and analysis from Slate's national correspondent Will Saletan. He's the author of "Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War."

Thank you, Will.

Mr. SALETAN: Thanks, Noah.

BRAND: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

(Announcements) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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