One way to understand the Democratic opposition to the judicial nomination of Brian Buescher over his membership in the Catholic group the Knights of Columbus is as a test run in preventing their worst nightmare: the confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
Democratic senators Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Mazie Hirono (Hawaii) targeted Buescher during his confirmation hearing and in written questions late last year, suggesting that his Catholic beliefs would lead him to rule against abortion rights, as well as that his membership in the Knights could be enough to disqualify him from serving as a judge at all. Hirono went so far as to demand that he drop his membership and recuse himself from any case on which the organization has taken a position.
At the simplest level, this is rank bigotry against American Catholics. Buescher’s opponents have pointed to no “extremist” positions that the Knights of Columbus takes, other than positions that it takes precisely because those are the positions of the Catholic Church. Opposing Buescher on these grounds implies that every Catholic who adheres to the Church’s moral teaching should be held in intense suspicion and might even be unfit for public service, especially on U.S. courts.
The Democratic focus on Buescher’s membership in the Knights is tied not to anything inherently sinister about the organization — which is wholly innocuous and, in fact, most widely known and respected for its charitable work and donations — but to their desire to use it as a proxy for his adherence to Catholicism, which they believe will lead him to rule against their pet precedents.
This should sound familiar. In the fall of 2017, Coney Barrett faced similar scrutiny from Democratic senators as a result of her Catholic faith, and some of their questioning centered around her membership in a small group called People of Praise, which has many practicing Catholic members.
“You have a long history of believing your religious beliefs should prevail,” Senator Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) told Barrett during the confirmation hearing. “When you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for years in this country.”
By “big issues,” of course, Feinstein was referring to abortion rights. The Democratic furor over Barrett in 2017 and over Buescher now was not about troubling activities on the part of People of Praise or the Knights of Columbus; it was about their fear that judges who are committed Catholics would refuse to uphold the judicially imposed regime of abortion on demand.
In raising a similar fuss over Buescher’s nomination, Democrats have revealed the basis of their strategy for what surely will be an all-out campaign to stop Coney Barrett from being seated on the Supreme Court, should President Trump have the chance to make another nomination and should he choose the Seventh Circuit judge.
This is a dangerous precedent, and one with implications that the Democrats may not like. Feinstein, Harris, and Hirono are proposing that if a judicial nominee belongs to a civil institution that holds differing views from our legal status quo, he or she is necessarily incapable of upholding the law. Such a standard would prevent members of any religious faith, not only Catholics, from serving as judges, as well as cast in suspicion members of political advocacy groups whose positions differ from established law or jurisprudence.
This standard is as incoherent as it is untenable. And, ultimately, it betrays the radical way that an increasing number of Democrats view the courts. They are concerned that a faithful Catholic will use his or her position as a judge to impose private preferences stemming from religion — and they don’t want any judge on the bench who holds different private preferences than their own — because they have ceased to view judges as neutral arbiters of the law and of the Constitution.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post stated that People of Praise is a Catholic group; it is not affiliated with the Church, but most of its members are Catholic.