Faith Versus The Constitution: A False Conflict

August 8, 2005

“Meet the Press” featured a debate between Professor Douglas Kmiec and former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo concerning whether Supreme Court nominees should be questioned about their religious beliefs.

Perceptive viewers of the debate could see that the real issue wasn’t so much the nominees’ religious beliefs but the proper role of the courts under the Constitution.

But first, some context. The reason Tim Russert was even hosting such a debate is that a story has been circulating — based on a column by law professor Jonathan Turley — that Judge Roberts told Sen. Durbin he would have to recuse himself in cases where the Constitution conflicted with his Catholic faith.

I don’t believe Roberts made such a statement, though I don’t doubt Durbin told Turley he did. In any event, the White House has assured us that if confirmed, Roberts would not allow his faith to conflict with his sworn allegiance to the Constitution.

Such assurance has not satisfied those zealots devoted to purging Christianity from the public square. Some of them are so mindlessly committed to privatizing religion they don’t even believe members of the legislative or executive branches should permit their religious beliefs to inform their policy views. But the idea that a faithful Catholic Supreme Court justice might defer to the pope ahead of the Constitution drives them mad.

In fairness, though, I have to agree — as does Justice Antonin Scalia, by the way — that a justice shouldn’t let his faith interfere with his duty to uphold the Constitution. My belief is grounded in my respect for the Constitution and the limited role the judiciary is assigned under it: interpreting, not making, law

The Left’s fears over Roberts’ Catholic faith, on the other hand, proceed not from their reverence for the Constitution, but chiefly from their violent objection to a particular article of the Catholic faith: that abortion is an egregious sin.

If they believed Roberts were a pro-abortionist, they wouldn’t demand his allegiance to the Constitution, as written, because Roe v. Wade’s judicial sanctioning of abortion would not have been possible by a Court remotely deferential to the Constitution. Indeed, the Left’s loyalty isn’t to the Constitution, but to certain policies that have been grafted into it by liberal activist judges who, in the process, have exhibited an abiding disrespect for the document.

If everyone shared the strict constructionists’ judicial philosophy, concerns over how a judge’s faith might influence his decisions would be moot, because strict constructionists don’t make policy.

To demonstrate how this would play out in practice, strict constructionists, irrespective of their personal views on abortion, would conclude there is no federal constitutional right to an abortion and that the legality of abortion should be left to the states. Thus, strict constructionist Supreme Court justices, being effectively neutral on the policy of abortion, would not — on the basis of a mythical constitutional privacy right — vote to invalidate state laws that either legalized or outlawed abortion.

But it is axiomatic that those who don’t play by the rules are always suspicious that the other side won’t either. Since liberals have routinely exploited the judiciary to implement their policy agenda they fear conservative-oriented judges might do the same. Actually, they’re horrified at the prospect that conservative judges might simply reverse precedent established through liberal activism, such as Roe.

Mario Cuomo gave voice to this liberal fear during the debate. Kmiec asserted that Pope John Paul II’s admonition to public officials to work legislatively to limit abortion did not apply to judges, because they are not legislators. Cuomo vehemently disputed this, saying, “The law today, as we all know, is Roe against Wade. That was made by judges and it can be overturned by judges. To say that the [pope’s] rules that apply to legislators shouldn’t apply to judges is, it seems to me, wrong.”

Quite a damning admission by Cuomo. That he so adamantly rejected the legislative-judicial distinction reveals that he fully embraces the idea that courts are a third policymaking branch.

Ironically, it is only nominees of the type Cuomo would prefer — liberal activists — whose faith or lack thereof, might influence their decisions on the bench, because they would not consider themselves strictly relegated to a law-interpreting function.

So perhaps we should suggest to Gov. Cuomo and his ilk that instead of inquiring about the nominee’s faith, senators should seek to determine whether he is an activist or strict constructionist. If he’s a strict constructionist, his religious and political views should be deemed off limits as irrelevant.

But if he is found to be an activist — liberal or conservative — he should be summarily disqualified because his activism will inevitably conflict with his required oath to uphold the Constitution.