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Sasse Questions Judicial Nominee over Knights of Columbus

Senator Ben Sasse, R., Neb., speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., September 4, 2018. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Senator Ben Sasse (R., Neb.) used a little humor this morning in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to remind his Democratic colleagues of their religious intolerance from earlier this year.

The committee was considering the nomination of U.S. district judge Peter Phipps to serve on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. “I want to ask you a hard question,” Sasse told Phipps at the start of their exchange. “Are you now or have you ever been involved in the organization of a fish fry?”

“As a consumer I have. . . . I’ve brought a few other consumers with me in fact,” Phipps replied.

“Judge, did you get questions for the record about being a member of the Knights of Columbus?” Sasse said in a follow-up, and the judge acknowledged that he had received such questions. “This is a new tradition around here evidently, trying to figure out if people are members of religious organizations,” the senator said.

After Phipps explained that the Knights of Columbus is a Catholic fraternal organization involved mostly in charity work, Sasse added rhetorically, “So it’s much more the stuff of community service, love of neighbor, fish fries, and pool parties than some sort of Da Vinci Code stuff? I just want to be clear that I understand this scary organization that you’re a member of.”

Sasse’s remarks in today’s hearing were meant to recall questions directed at judicial nominee Brian Buescher a few months ago by Democratic senators Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Mazie Hirono (Hawaii), who targeted Buescher over his involvement in the Knights of Columbus. The senators insinuated, and at times outright stated, that Buescher’s Catholic beliefs would lead him to rule against abortion rights and that his membership in the Knights could 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.

But that episode evidently has been quickly forgotten by Sasse’s Democratic colleagues. After the Nebraska senator closed his questioning with an admonition that he hopes “we’d reconsider this new tradition on this committee of asking people about their religious commitments,” Senator Pat Leahy (D., Vt.) interrupted the proceedings to chastise Sasse for bringing up the Knights of Columbus.

“Like my father, I’ve been a long-time member of the Knights of Columbus, and even though I’m half Italian, I don’t remember any discussion of da Vinci. What are you referring to?” Leahy said. More from Leahy’s remarks:

My father was a youngster who went to work, and they had signs that said ‘no Catholics need apply’ or ‘no Irish need apply.’ He stood against that kind of prejudice for any kind of religion. I faced it the first time I ran for the Senate and overcame it. My state has become different. What is da Vinci? I don’t understand. And I’m a little bit annoyed as a member of the K of C.

Sasse noted that his question was meant sarcastically, and that perhaps Leahy ought to huddle with some of his colleagues who evidently don’t share his distaste for questioning whether nominee’s religious beliefs disqualify them from holding judicial office.

For her part, Hirono seems to be distancing herself from her own tactics. “To be clear, no senator on [the Democratic] side has ever suggested that a member of any organization is per se unfit for the bench, only those who cannot be fair and impartial,” she said after Sasse’s questioning of Phipps today. But in her questions to Buescher a few months ago, Hirono did exactly what she claimed no Democratic senator has done, writing in part,

7. You reported that you have been a member of the Knights of Columbus since 1993. The Knights of Columbus has taken a number of extreme positions. For example, it was reportedly one of the top contributors to California’s Proposition 8 campaign to ban same-sex marriage.

a. If confirmed, do you intend to end your membership with this organization to avoid any appearance of bias?

At the very least, perhaps it’s good to know that Democrats are willing to condemn inappropriate questioning about a nominee’s religious faith when the questions are coming from a Republican.

Here’s a video of the exchange:

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