Catholics on the Court

huge_3_19675Three recent events have added a new wrinkle to a debate that has been taking place among legal scholars: what, if anything, does it mean to be both a Catholic and a Supreme Court Justice?

First, the confirmation of Justice Sonia Sotomayor has added a sixth practicing Catholic to the Supreme Court.  As a proportion of the Court’s membership, Catholics on the Court currently exceed their proportionate representation in the general public by a significant amount.  This is an astonishing historical fact, although its significance is not self-evident.

Second, Frank Colucci’s book, Justice Kennedy’s Jurisprudence, was recently reviewed  in the Wall Street Journal by Northwestern University Law School Professor John McGinnis.  Apparently, Mr. Colucci does not adhere to the conventional wisdom that Justice Kennedy is an unpredictable jurist whose primary concerns are the aggrandizement of the Supreme Court and the divination of narrow, fact-based holdings.  Instead, and somewhat unexpectedly, Corlucci argues that Justice Kennedy’s approach to the interpretation of the Constitution is best understood as seeking to advance a moral imperative.

Justice Kennedy’s objective, according to Corlucci, is to vindicate and preserve an ever increasing share of individual liberty within our broader society.  Here is the key portion of Professor McGinnis’ review:

Looking for the sources of Justice Kennedy’s moral judgment, Mr. Colucci discovers one in post-Vatican II Catholic thought, including papal encyclicals like Dignitatis Humanae.  In Roper v. Simmons, a ruling forbidding the death penalty for criminals under the age of 18, Justice Kennedy wrote that juveniles only rarely exhibit ‘irreparable corruption’ – a phrase that a secular judge might not have used.  (Justice Kennedy is an observant Catholic).  It is odd to reflect that the justice most influenced by contemporary Catholic thought may today be – because of his emphasis on individual rights – the decisive vote for preserving the abortion status quo.

It is intriguing to consider whether there is, in fact, a demonstrable connection between Catholic social thought and Justice Kennedy’s interpretation of an evolving liberty interest guaranteed by the Constitution.

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More on Coulee Catholic Schools v. LIRC

discriminationAs Professor Esenberg has just posted about, earlier this week, the Wisconsin Supreme Court handed down a very important decision, Coulee Catholic Schools v. LIRC (2009 WI 88). Although some describe the holding as “a dramatic change” in Wisconsin employment law, I think the case is more important for its constitutional discussion. On the actual question presented, I think the Court’s holding was straightforward, correct, and not very dramatic.

In Coulee Catholic Schools, the Court was asked whether a first grade teacher in a Catholic school was subject to the “ministerial exception,” meaning that the school’s religious freedom to select its own ministers and leaders barred her age discrimination claim. Half the courts in the country that have considered this question concluded that a religious school teacher is engaged in sufficient ministry to be included, while half have said that such a teacher is not. The Wisconsin Supreme Court decided that the religious school teacher in this case did engage in and lead sufficient religious activities to fall within the exception.

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Coulee Catholic: Of Loopholes and Legislating

Wednesday, in a case called Coulee Catholic Schools v. Labor and Industry Review Commission, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that the “ministerial exception” to state laws prohibiting employment discrimination applied to a teacher in a Catholic grade school. As a result, the teacher’s claim against the school for age discrimination must be dismissed.

There a few points worth making. First, it is inaccurate and misleading to call the decision, which was written by Justice Michael Gableman and joined by Justices Prosser, Roggensack and Ziegler, “legislating from the bench.” Although this exception is not spelled out in the applicable statute, it is fairly implied from the free exercise clause of the First Amendment and the freedom of conscience clause in Article I, sec. 18 of the Wisconsin Constitution. In fact, courts everywhere recognize it and it is consistent with a general reluctance on the part of courts to examine the internal decision making of religious organizations on matters that implicate the organization’s religious mission and precepts. To determine whether the plaintiff in this case was terminated due to her age, an administrative agency or court would have to examine the school’s decision in light of its religious mission and that would lead to state evaluation of religious judgments.

Second, it is also unfair to say that the Court found a “loophole,” although I can see that there is some poetic justice in the charge for critics of Gableman campaign ads that used that term in connection with certain of the Court’s criminal law decisions. 

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