Fight for nominations to the Supreme Court of the United States
The judicial Power of the United States is the Supreme Court. The Court may exercise the power of, or the power to declare federal or state laws, as well as the actions of federal and state executives, unconstitutional. The decisions of the Supreme Court may not be appealed to any other body. Stephen Breyer, who has been an associate justice of the Supreme Court since 1994, characterised the role of justices in the following words, 'The Constitution provides for the existence of institutions which are the expressions of the citizens' self-government. Human rights, individual freedom, division of authority and respect for law set the limits of their activities. We guard these limits'. Thus we can see how important the Supreme Court is in the political and social life in the United States.
The Supreme Court of the United States consists of nine justices, nominated by the President; the Senate confirms their candidatures. They are appointed for life, which means that the justices nominated by Bush will work for many years including the times of future presidents. The Chief Justice William Rehenquist died last year. The President nominated John Roberts, who has become the youngest member of this exclusive body. Last year another justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced that she wanted to retire. At first Bush proposed his legal counsellor Harriet Miers (her candidature was not even accepted by her own party because Miers had no experience as a judge), and then he suggested the candidature of Samuel Alito. The judge whom the President could introduce as 'one of the most experienced and respected American judges' was not accepted by the senators of the Democratic Party. Senator Harry Reid, the leader of the opposition, said that he had to check whether Alito was 'not too radical for the American nation'.
The nominations of new members of the Supreme Court have revealed some serious problems of the American society that have never been fully solved. The first problem is the 'Catholic issue'. For ages the United States have been governed by the so-called WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), i.e. Americans coming from white elites of Anglo-Saxon origin. They were in power and they controlled the economy of the country. With time there also appeared representatives of the Jewish community, consisting of several million people, in centres of power and cultural elites of the country. Whereas the Americans of different background: the black, descendants of old slaves, immigrants from European countries, e.g. the Irish, Italians, Poles, Ukrainians, Greeks, etc, as well as newcomers from Latin America were second category citizens. The ruling elites of WASP disliked the Catholics, who were contemptuously called papists and accused of being more faithful to the Vatican than to their country. What is worse, the contemporary anti-Catholicism has become almost a fashion, which inclined Prof. Philip Jenkins to state that it is today 'the only tolerated prejudice' in the United States. In this atmosphere the nomination of two new justices, Catholics - with three justices in the Supreme Court - made the opposition raise the question of 'Catholic' presence in this state organ. Those who criticize Bush's nomination accuse the President that by choosing the Catholics he caused that 'the minority religion', only 25% of the US citizens declare themselves Catholic, has the majority in this highest judicial organ. Naturally, following this reasoning one could state that there are too many 'Jewish' justices (there are two: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer), since the Protestants are represented by 'only' two members. The liberal-libertarian circles of the opposition see the presence of Catholics in the Supreme Court as great danger, especially now when they are to deal with such delicate matters as abortion, euthanasia and manipulation of human embryos. Therefore, they accuse Alito of having supported the state law of Pennsylvania according to which a wife was obliged to inform her husband of her intention to have an abortion.
The discussion about the nomination of Alito has also revealed how certain prejudices connected with the national origin of citizens are deeply rooted in the American society. Although Alito was born in Trenton, New Jersey, and has spent all his life in the United States, has been shown as a descendant of Italian immigrants (his 92-year-old mother Rose, who immigrated from Italy to the U.S.A. long time ago, is still alive), and the Italians are not only Catholics but also Mafiosi with strong family relationships, who are associated with spaghetti, wine and singing. In the past Italian background was an obstacle in the career of the known politician Mario Cuomo, who had presidential ambitions. Vice-president Quayle said once that the weak point of Cuomo was the fact that his name was Mario, and Clinton called him openly a 'Mafioso'. The campaign against Samuel Alito assumed such a clear racist character that the Italian-American organisations organised a demonstration to defend him.
And another comment. The behaviour of the members of the Democratic Party during the discussion about the new nominations and during the hearings showed how much this party departed from its old electorate. Traditionally, it was the a party of the lower social classes, i.e. American black citizens, immigrants, workers and small businessmen, sensitive to authentic problems of ordinary people. However, under the influence of dissidents' movements of the 1970s it began to change into an elite radical-liberal club, headed by left-wing intellectuals from metropolitan cities of the western and eastern coasts, the club which loses contact with 'small-town' Americans, often treated with contempt and superiority. The nominations to the highest posts of such people like Alito, and earlier the second victorious election of Bush, testify that the United States are not only the country presented in the films of Michel Moore, criticised in Noam Chomsky's and Gore Vidal's books or presented in the articles of the radical-chic editors of New York Times.
Wlodzimierz Redzioch talks to Prof. George Weigel about the personal changes in the Supreme Court of the United States.
I have asked George Weigel from the Ethic and Public Policy Center in Washington and the well-known biographer of John Paul II, to comment on the President's nominations to the Supreme Court.
WLODZIMIERZ REDZIOCH: - The nominations of new members to the Supreme Court of the United States are regarded as one of the most important decisions of President Bush. What is the role of the Supreme Court in the political and social life of the United States?
Prof. GEORGE WEIGEL: - According to the Constitution of the United States the task of the Supreme Court is to give the final verdict whether some law that was questioned in the court is 'constitutional', i.e. in accord with the Constitution or whether it violates any of its articles. For over 160 years the Supreme Court was limited to this rather humble function. However, in the last 60 years its role has changed. It has begun to act as a legislative organ rather than a court, i.e. it began making law effective instead of only interpreting it. I can say that the American Constitution has not the term 'abortion' but in spite of this the Supreme Court acknowledged in 1973 that 'the right to abortion' is in accord with it. Therefore, I think that the task of new justices, nominated by President Bush, will be to diminish the power of the Supreme Court in comparison with what it has today.
- Two justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito, chosen by President Bush, are practicing Catholics. Moreover, Roberts, a relatively young man, was nominated Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. What is the meaning of these 'Catholic' nominations?
- First of all, it means that the anti-Catholic prejudices have been abolished. They assumed that Catholicism was an obstacle in achieving professional and intellectual successes. As far as the activities of John Roberts and Samuel Alito in the Supreme Court are concerned, the problem is not their views on seven sacraments or Christology of the Council of Chalcedon but the question whether they can act within the framework of the competences, which the Constitution set for the Supreme Court, and whether they will reject cases that are within the authority of the Congress and state legislative authorities.
- In his famous book 'The New Anti-Catholicism. The Last Acceptable Prejudice' Prof. Philip Jenkins states that in the U.S.A. anti-Catholic prejudices are something normal, and what's more, they are 'fashionable' (the obvious manipulations with the sexual scandal, which shook the Catholic Church in the United States, are the best evidences). Do you really see some changes for the better?
- I can see changes among the Evangelicals who have better attitudes towards Catholicism now, partly because of the respect they had for John Paul II whom they regard as the greatest witness to Christianity in the 20th century. Whereas in the secularised cultural environments of America there are prejudices and negative attitudes towards Catholicism.
- What is the attitude of President Bush towards the Catholic Church and papacy?
- President Bush always had a great respect for John Paul II. I would say that the Pope was some kind of a hero for him. On the state level Bush's administration has closely collaborated with the Apostolic See on such issues as religious freedom and other matters connected with human rights, protection of life, fight against the contemporary form of slavery, which is called trade in human beings. I hope that the White House and the Vatican will also help Iraq in its attempts to build self-government.
- Prof. Jenkins also noticed that the Catholic Church in the U.S.A. was not only criticised from inside but mainly from 'outside' by Catholics whom he called anti-Catholic Catholics. Do you agree with this statement?
- It is true. However, I think that the number of anti-Catholic Catholics is decreasing every year.
- Thank you for the conversation.
The significant Supreme Court decisions include:
1964 Escobedo v. Illinois. The decision honours petitioner's request to consult with his lawyer during the course of an interrogation.
1965 Griswold v. Connecticut; the right to privacy.
1974 United States v. Nixon. The federal prosecutor could hear the recordings of President's phone calls in the Watergate affair, which led to Nixon's resignation.
2000 Bush v. Gore. It acknowledged the victory of Bush in the elections. Gore contested the certification of Florida presidential election results.