Will Sotomayor’s Religion Influence Her Supreme Court Decisions?

ap_sotomayor_090528_mnSupreme Court hopeful Sonia Sotomayor may be the first Latina to be nominated to the high court, but she’s certainly not the first Catholic. Five other justices are Catholic – Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Chief Justice John Roberts. In the history of the Supreme Court there have been a total of 11 out of 110 justices who have been Catholic. It’s hard to say how much influence a person’s religion has on their decision making process, but it certainly poses an interesting question for pro-choice advocates who are concerned about Sotomayor’s record on abortion.

Tom Goldstein at SCOTUS Blog predicts that Sotomayor’s nomination is pretty much a done deal. In his opinion, Sotomayor is unlikely to receive the same kind of grueling confirmation hearing that Justices Roberts and Scalia received when the Democrats were in the minority.

The phase of defining a nominee in the public’s eye now lasts around forty-eight hours. In that time Harriet Miers was pretty much done – finished. By this point, there has been a huge amount of press coverage and opponents have had the opportunity to make their case. It’s a shockingly short period (unfortunately so), but it reflects (a) the ready availability of research materials, and (b) the rapid turn-over of news cycles.

For a nominee like Sonia Sotomayor, that is the life-or-death period. Once the public is comfortable with her suitability, then the irreducible political reality is that there is no serious prospect of vigorously challenging the nation’s first Latina Supreme Court nominee when the President’s party has an overwhelming numerical advantage in the Senate.

The collapse of serious opposition also becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy . . . Without a public drumbeat of concern – and with the press’s attention inevitably shifting away – the opposition outside the circle of committed advocates is almost certain to run out of gas . . . There could be a burst of revitalizing energy with the disclosure of some ethical transgression, but zero reason to believe that will actually happen.

I find this disappointing. Sotomayor’s nomination represents an attempt to diversify the Court. If this is the case, she should be held to the same standard as every other Justice so that no one can say that a woman or a person of color couldn’t meet the same standard as a white male. There need to be some tough questions asked about her judicial philosophy, especially on the issue of choice. Roberts and Scalia faced intense pressure from both sides of the aisle to be specific about their stand on Roe v. Wade, and Sotomayor needs to answer the same questions. Pro-choice advocates need to know where we stand as Sotomayor takes the bench. Sotomayor only issued one abortion-related decision during her tenure as an appellate judge. It dealt with the issue of the Global Gag Order (aka the “Mexico City Policy”), which prohibits federal funding for groups that support abortion. Sotomayor upheld the constitutionality of that particular policy, but she has never directly ruled on the question of abortion itself.

Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women have announced their support for Sotomayor, although neither of their press statements mention Sotomayor’s record on abortion. The Feminist Majority Foundation is conspicuously mum. However, the Center for Reproductive Rights has expressed wariness about Sotomayor’s nomination, citing her decision in the 2002 case of Center for Reproductive Law & Policy v. Bush. And NARAL Pro-Choice America‘s President Nancy Keenan told ABC News that Sotomayor’s nomination hearings must include pointed questions about her position on Roe v. Wade.

This brings me to the question I asked in the title of this post: will Sotomayor’s religion influence her Supreme Court decisions? So far, Catholics for Choice has not released a statement about whether or not they support Sotomayor’s nomination. I think we should refrain from stereotyping Sotomayor, and that we can’t assume we know what her position on abortion will be simply because we know she is a Catholic. There are many pro-choice Catholics in this country. I just want to hear Sotomayor verbalize her position herself so that the rest of us aren’t left to wonder and base our opinions on supposition.

Photo credit: ABC News


  1. [...] and the issue of abortion. The important question is how Sonia Sotomayor feels about the issue. We can’t just assume that her Catholicism means anything on this issue. Women’s e-News points to Justice Souter’s decisions on gender-based discrimination to [...]

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