Catholics on the Supreme Court: The Jury Is out on Justice John Roberts

By Drinan, Robert F. | National Catholic Reporter, September 8, 2006 | Go to article overview

Catholics on the Supreme Court: The Jury Is out on Justice John Roberts


Drinan, Robert F., National Catholic Reporter


People ask me what I think about the fact that, for the first time in U.S. history, five of the nine members of the United States Supreme Court are Catholics. For better or for worse, there is no clear or cogent answer.

The Catholics are Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, John Roberts and Samuel Alito Jr.

I spoke at some length with Chief Justice Roberts when he gave the commencement address at Georgetown University Law Center. He is handsome, charming and witty. His wife, the former Jane Sullivan, a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, is on the board of Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., from which she graduated. The couple has two adopted children under the age of 10.

The new chief justice was selected by the Bush administration because he has always been a reliable vote for the conservative viewpoint. The votes of Chief Justice Roberts in his first term on the court will not disappoint his sponsors. It's too early to say whether he will be a judicial activist on the court. The chief justice voted with Justice Scalia 88 percent of the time in his first term.

In his hearings before the Senate,. Judge Roberts said firmly that unelected judges should not usurp the roles of the legislative or executive branches of government. But the new chief justice gave little deference to Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers in a case involving protected wetlands. Likewise the chief justice struck down the carefully crafted laws of Vermont placing limits on campaign contributions.

But it is clearly premature to judge the judicial philosophy of the new chief justice on the basis of the 69 decisions handed down in the 2005-2006 term. The presence of some ideological predispositions has been clearly foreshadowed in this first term. But is there any hope that Chief Justice Roberts-could change his views as Chief Justice Earl Warren did when he ruled in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954--a decision that changed history?

Catholic theology has no direct or specific answer to the tangled cases that finally reach the U.S. Supreme Court. But the strong emphasis the Catholic faith puts on human dignity, equality and substantive and procedural due process go against the spirit and letter of laws that infringe on the rights of persons who assert that the government denies them their rights. …

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