Remember when President George Bush nominated Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court? As readers and viewers were told for months, Alito would become the fifth Catholic on the court -- the most ever. NPR ran a story about what the preponderance of Catholics meant. It included the quote from Dahlia Lithwick: "People are very, very much talking about the fact that Alito would be the fifth Catholic on the Supreme Court if confirmed." Lithwick didn't mention that Sotomayor would be the sixth Catholic in this Newsweek piece about how awesome she would be. And Lithwick and Emily Bazelon (of the incompetent questioning of Ruth Bader Ginsburg fame) had Sotomayor at the top of their list of SCOTUS candidates before she was named. Her potential Catholicism was noted without comment.
The Associated Press ran a brief story about how Alito would be the fifth Catholic. It included a hilarious line about how Clarence Thomas "converted to Catholicism after joining the court." Except, you know, he was raised Catholic and even considered the priesthood. Here's the New York Times and Washington Post on Alito. ABC ran a story headlined "Alito Would Create Catholic Majority on Top Court." The Economist ran a story analyzing the religious make-up of the court.
It wasn't just Alito. When Chief Justice John Roberts was nominated, NPR's Nina Totenberg famously said:
People who know him know that John Roberts is a really conservative guy....Don't forget his wife was an officer, a high officer of a pro-life organization. He's got adopted children. I mean, he's a conservative Catholic....a hardline conservative.
I love the terms "high officer" and "hardline conservative." And not adopted children! No! This piece on Sotomayor did mention Sotomayor's Catholicism but the discussion of it was rather bland.
Or remember when the Supreme Court upheld a federal ban on partial birth abortions? The Philadelphia Inquirer ran that cartoon "Church and State" portraying the five Catholic justices in bishops' mitres. And the media ran more than a few worried pieces about the Catholic composition of the court.
It's not that people aren't talking about Sotomayor being the sixth Catholic on the bench, it's just that the media all of a sudden don't find it so interesting. They covered it a bit back in May but the story doesn't have legs, as they say. (NB: The New York Times ran a great piece on the matter in late May.)
This week, the New York Times asked readers for questions they'd like to see asked of Sotomayor. It then highlighted some of them. More than a few readers brought up her Catholicism. Here's one from reader Rob Kilby, for instance:
Do you think the court's composition should reflect society's composition in terms of ethnicity etc.? If so, even in a general kind of way, how do you feel six Catholics and only one Protestant reflect American society's composition?
That's precisely the question (except replace six with five) that the mainstream media was hammering during the Alito confirmation. As of this writing, the Times hadn't highlighted any of the religious questions. Other outlets don't seem so concerned about the religious background of Sotomayor anymore either. And the question is why.
Wall Street Journal columnist Bill McGurn explored the issue and raised some interesting questions. Here's how he began:
In opening yesterday's Judiciary Committee hearings on Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court, Chairman Pat Leahy (D., Vt.) alluded to the religious prejudice that has too often intruded on the process.
The first Jewish nominee, he noted, had to answer "questions about the Jewish mind and how its operations are complicated by altruism." The first Catholic nominee, he added, "had to overcome the argument that, as a Catholic, he'd be dominated by the pope."
"We are," Sen. Leahy declared, "in a different era."
Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor under the bright lights at her Senate confirmation hearing, July 13, 2009.
Maybe. It's true that if Ms. Sotomayor is confirmed there will be six Catholics on the Court -- a higher percentage than almost any Notre Dame starting lineup of the past three decades. It's also true that notwithstanding a few scattered references to this fact, for the most part the judge's religion has been greeted, as a USA Today headline put it, with a "yawn."
After noting some other examples of different levels of interest in the Catholicism of Alito, Roberts and Sotomayor, he quotes Princeton professor Robert George saying it all boils down to a double standard -- you can read the full column if you desire. Here's how he ends:
If the indifference to Ms. Sotomayor's Catholicism were truly a sign of a new respect for the "no religious test" provisions of the Constitution, that would be something to celebrate. But in the unlikely case that this "wise Latina" ever comes to see the legal wisdom of overturning Roe and returning abortion to the democratic process, we'll be reading a very different story.
Sotomayor said today that she considered Roe to be settled law. Still, isn't it interesting that a nominee's Catholicism is only a problem worth media coverage some of the time? Why do you think that is?