Bench Memos

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Religion When It Suits


I don’t often agree with E.J. Dionne, but yesterday he nailed it. Of course, so have some conservative commentators whom he quotes. Dionne’s complaint? That the same people in the Bush administration and among its supporters who thought it was outrageous when anyone brought up the religion of John Roberts, in order to raise questions about his future decision-making as a justice, think it’s just fine to sell Harriet Miers (to wary conservatives, anyway) by talking about what a fine and trustworthy future jurist her religion makes her. A little hypocrisy may be “the tribute that vice pays to virtue,” as La Rochefoucauld said. But this much begins to smell bad.

I’ll go Dionne one better. I think the administration has played it wrong both times. It was right not to try to “sell” Roberts on the basis of his putative conservative Catholicism. What John Roberts thinks about the ensoulment of the embryo, not to mention of the doctrine of transubstantiation, is not an argument for his confirmation by the Senate. But when Democratic senators started to hint darkly about what they feared might be Roberts’s Catholic views, the administration and its GOP allies in the Senate would have done much better not to react in high dudgeon, but to smile serenely and say “why ever do you wish to ask such a thing? Go right ahead and we’ll see what the judge has to say.” Does anyone think that what would have followed would have benefited Roberts’s opponents in any way?

And now, with its broad nudges and winks, its tributes to Harriet Miers’s religious faith, as though that constituted satisfactory assurance to conservatives that she would be “our kind” of Supreme Court justice, the Bush administration has chosen a tactic that is both wrong on the merits and foolishly hypocritical. Should Miers’s interlocutors in the Senate hearings try again what they were rebuffed for trying with Roberts, how can their questions be fended off now? Bush’s people have already ruled such questions in, not out.


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