As conservative, often religiously motivated positions on issues like gay marriage and banning abortion increasingly become out of step with popular opinion and legal precedent, this boundary between personal conviction and legal fidelity is going to become even tricker to navigate. What’s the line between examining a nominee’s religious convictions and believing those convictions disqualify her from serving the country?
Democratic senators cited a number of concerns with Barrett’s past statements and writings. But by far, they spent most of their time questioning a 1998 paper Barrett wrote as a law student along with John Garvey, who is now president of the Catholic University of America.
In the paper, the two authors explore whether a Catholic judge should recuse herself from death-penalty cases if she would be unable to impartially uphold the law because of her religious convictions. “The pope and the American bishops have recently offered clear and forceful denunciations” of the punishment, they reason, and many Catholics feel morally obligated to uphold the teachings of the Church. In certain, limited circumstances, they argue, federal judges should step back from involvement in cases that might raise conflicts of conscience.
They did not, however, argue that judges should step back from morally complicated cases all, or even most, of the time. “It turns out that the number of cases in which we thought an adherence to your moral principles would prevent you from deciding a case according to the law was much smaller than we imagined,” said Garvey in an interview.
In those rare cases when law and conscience do conflict, Barrett and Garvey argued in the paper, the most important thing is that “judges cannot—nor should they try to—align our legal system with the Church’s moral teaching whenever the two diverge.” Although some might be tempted “cheat,” as they put it—“to take charge of sentencing hearings and manipulate the law and evidence in order to save lives”—that betrays public trust. Occasionally, the federal recusal statute can help judges to avoid interfering with the law while still “[conforming] their own behavior to the Church’s standard.” Perhaps, they write, “their good example will have some effect.”
The Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee seemed to read the paper in the opposite way, saying that a judge’s religious beliefs should trump the law.
“You are controversial. Let’s start with that,” Feinstein said during the hearing. “You’re controversial because many of us who have lived our lives as women really recognize the value of finally being able to control our reproductive systems, and Roe entered into that, obviously. … You have a long history of believing that your religious beliefs should prevail.”
Barrett said she thought it prudent to refrain from commenting on her personal beliefs about Roe. “I would commit, if confirmed, to follow unflinchingly all Supreme Court precedent,” she said. “I would not want to leave the impression that I would give some precedents more weight than others because of some sort of academic disagreement.”