In advance of the Stevens retirement announcement, NPR Supreme Court reporter Nina Totenberg filed a report on Wednesday’s Morning Edition underlining that the departure of Stevens would leave behind a court with no Protestant justices and six Catholics. Did that matter? Could it be discussed? Experts weighed in, but Totenberg didn’t strongly take sides.
She did goof up a bit by implying that “Protestant Republicans — Reagan and both Bushes — appointed five of the Catholics currently serving on the court.” That’s technically true, but George H. W. Bush actually appointed two Episcopalians — Clarence Thomas was attending an Episcopalian church at the time he was nominated for the highest court. He later returned to Catholicism.
Totenberg allowed Princeton provost Christopher Eisengruber to make the obvious point that some Catholic justices (ahem, Sotomayor) are on an opposite side of the abortion question from the church listed on their biography. But she concluded with the thought that religion still mattered:
Indeed, all hell did break loose during the Bush administration, when some Democrats asked a Bush appeals court nominee whether he could enforce abortion rights, even though he’d called Roe vs. Wade an abomination. The Democrats who asked that question found themselves pilloried in TV and radio ads for being anti-Catholic — even the ones who were lifelong, observant Catholics.
We can safely assume that Totenberg’s putting Senators like Patrick Leahy and the late Ted Kennedy in the “observant Catholic” category, which is a questionable label. Even routine Mass attendance doesn’t make one “observant” if you have a 100-percent voting record with NARAL Pro-Choice America.