Senators take fire over questions for Catholic judicial nominee
University of Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking Democrat, Dianne Feinstein, taking issue with her statements that Barrett’s worldview seems strongly driven by “dogma.”
By JOSH GERSTEIN 09/11/2017
At least two prominent university presidents are accusing senators of religious bias for challenging a Catholic judicial nominee over her faith-driven views during a confirmation hearing last week.
University of Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins and Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber both wrote letters objecting to lawmakers’ pointed questions on the topic to Notre Dame law professor Amy Barrett last week, whom President Donald Trump has nominated to the Chicago-based 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
Jenkins wrote directly to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking Democrat, Dianne Feinstein of California, taking issue with her statements that Barrett’s worldview seems strongly driven by “dogma.”
“Your concern, as you expressed it, is that ‘dogma lives loudly in [Professor Barrett], and that is a concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for years in this country,'” Jenkins wrote. “I am one in whose heart ‘dogma lives loudly,’ as it has for centuries in the lives of many Americans, some of whom have given their lives in service to this nation. Indeed, it lived loudly in the hearts of those who founded our nation as one where citizens could practice their faith freely and without apology.”
“It is chilling to hear from a United States Senator that this might now disqualify someone from service as a federal judge. I ask you and your colleagues to respect those in whom ‘dogma lives loudly’—which is a condition we call faith,” the Notre Dame president wrote.
At the hearing, Feinstein said she was deeply worried that Barrett’s fidelity to Catholic theology would lead her to ignore Supreme Court precedents on issues like abortion.
“Dogma and law are two different things,” Feinstein declared. “And I think whatever a religion is, it has its own dogma. The law is totally different.”
Barrett insisted that she’d abide by all precedent and that her writings on the subject actually explain that Catholic judges who find a conflict between their religious views and a specific case need to step aside from that case.
“It’s never appropriate for a judge to impose that judge’s personal convictions, whether they arise from faith or anywhere else, on the law,” Barrett said during the hearing. She also distanced herself from views expressed in an article on the subject two decades ago with a more senior co-author.
Eisgruber’s letter, addressed to Feinstein and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, urged senators to “refrain from interrogating nominees about the religious or spiritual foundations of their jurisprudential views.”
“Because religious belief is constitutionally irrelevant to the qualifications for a federal judgeship, the Senate should not interrogate any nominee about those beliefs. I believe, more specifically, that the questions directed to Professor Barrett about her faith were not consistent with the principle set forth in the Constitution’s ‘no religious test’ clause,” Eisgruber wrote. He cited no specific questions he found inappropriate.
During the hearing Wednesday, two Republicans—Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Jeff Flake of Arizona—also argued that the questioning of Barrett about her Catholic views crossed the line.
“I think some of the questioning you’ve been subjected to today seems to miss some of these fundamental constitutional protections that we all have,” Sasse said.
A spokeswoman for Feinstein had no comment on the letters, but Feinstein’s office also gave reporters background material last week highlighting several statements by Barrett, including a speech to Notre Dame graduates in 2006 where she said: “Your legal career is but a means to an end, and . . . that end is building the kingdom of God.”
Other Democrats raised similar concerns about Barrett’s writings on the interplay between Catholicism and judging, including Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii.
While Democrats challenged Barrett most aggressively on the issue, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and one of the Senate’s most conservative Republicans, Ted Cruz of Texas, also asked Barrett about her views on how Catholic judges should handle conflicts between their faith and their judicial duties.
“I’ve read some of what you’ve written on Catholic judges in capital cases and, in particular, as I understand it, you argued that Catholic judges are morally precluded from enforcing the death penalty,” Cruz said.
“A little bit narrower than that,” Barrett said.
“I was going to ask you to just please explain your views on that, because that obviously is of relevance to the job for which you have been nominated,” Cruz said.