The recent debate on whether or not to seat Judge Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme…
The suspense is over. President Trump has proposed Judge Brett Kavanaugh to be a member of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Senate now will decide whether this nomination will stand or fall.
The nomination, along with the retirement of long-serving Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, has made the headlines recently, but membership on the Supreme Court has made headlines before now.
Appointments often have reflected the people’s collective mood at a given time, as well as the people’s prejudice.
For American Catholics, an especially unpleasant moment occurred in January 1835 when President Andrew Jackson nominated Roger Brooke Taney, a respected Maryland attorney, for Supreme Court justice. Nobody questioned Taney’s legal credentials, but he had one great, unforgivable problem, as far as many Americans were concerned: He was a practicing Roman Catholic.
His nomination coincided with the arrival of many Catholic immigrants into the country. People, great and small, in public office or not, were shouting that Catholics were “infesting” this country, saying that Ireland and the German states were not sending us their best with the thousands of people who were immigrating.
Unsurprisingly, the Senate failed to confirm Taney. Not to be outdone, Jackson again nominated Taney to the Supreme Court, as chief justice, less than a year later. Debate in the Senate about seating Taney was energetic, and it was not pretty, but in the end Taney was confirmed.
He served until his death in 1864. His decisions were controversial, but no rational person was ever able to claim that Chief Justice Taney’s loyalty to this country was weak because of his religion.
It took longer for a Jewish American to be named a justice. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson nominated Louis Brandeis, a distinguished Jewish lawyer, to the high court. His path to confirmation in the Senate was not an example of religious tolerance and good will, but, after all the shouting and screaming that Jews did not subscribe to “American values,” he finally secured confirmation.
Justice Brandeis still was on the bench when President Herbert Hoover nominated Benjamin Cardozo, another Jew, to the court in 1932. What could be as bad, bigots bellowed, as having two Jewish justices? One was too many, they whined. Nevertheless, Cardozo was seated after Senate approval.
President Lyndon B. Johnson made history in 1967 when he presented U.S. Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall for the court. Marshall was an African-American, the first of his race ever to be nominated as a justice. His confirmation process was not exactly smooth; many whispers were heard, but Marshall was confirmed. Only 11 senators voted against him. Most Americans, although not all, favored civil rights and equal opportunity for blacks.
In 1981, President Ronald Reagan proposed Arizona Judge Sandra Day O’Connor for the high court, the first woman ever nominated. She had little trouble in the Senate, none based on her gender. Women’s liberation was in high gear.
President Barack Obama nominated Judge Sonia Sotomayor for the high court in 2009, the first Hispanic nominee, but she was born and reared in New York, and her parents were Puerto Ricans and thus full-fledged American citizens. Arguing that she was an “alien” in this country would have been ridiculous.
This fact has pertained throughout the history of the Supreme Court: Regardless of how justices once spoke or wrote, some have thought differently when seated on the court. Watching the present process, remember. Some leopards do shed their spots.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.