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Court Could Tip to Catholic Majority
Like the overwhelming majority of Catholics across the country in the first half of the 20th century, most of the occupants of what became known as "the Catholic seat" on the high court were Democrats, even though two of them (Brennan and Pierce Butler) were appointed by Republican presidents.
In the view of Howard Gillman, a professor of political science at the University of Southern California, the possibility that five Catholics may soon sit on the court is less striking than the fact that all five are Republicans.
"It certainly is a dramatic reflection of the changing demographics of our parties," he said.
Since the 1960s, the Republican Party has made substantial inroads among Catholics, who are a quarter of the U.S. population and have roughly split their votes in recent presidential elections, tipping narrowly toward Al Gore in 2000 and then toward George W. Bush in 2004.
Why have recent Republican presidents turned again and again to Catholic jurists when making appointments to the Supreme Court? It may be partly an effort to woo Catholic voters, but mostly it's because so many of the brightest stars in the conservative legal firmament are Catholics, several scholars said.
Gillman believes that beginning in the 1960s, many conservative Catholics went into the legal profession "because they felt the constitutional jurisprudence of the country was not reflecting their values," particularly on abortion, funding for parochial schools and restrictions on religion in public places. "I think you're seeing the fruits of those efforts now," he said.
Bernard Dobranski, dean of Ave Maria School of Law, a Catholic institution founded in 2000 in Ann Arbor, Mich., said the number of highly qualified conservative Catholic lawyers is also a tribute to the strength of Catholic schools, the determination of immigrants to educate their children and a rich tradition of legal scholarship in the Catholic Church.
A hallmark of that tradition is the belief in "natural law," a basic set of moral principles that the church says is written in the hearts of all people and true for all societies. Though long out of favor in secular law schools, the natural law approach is resurgent among conservatives, Dobranski said.
Another reason for the prominence of Catholics in conservative legal circles is that many have graduated from Ivy League colleges and law schools. Attending those schools has practically been a prerequisite for the clerkships that launch high-flying legal careers.
Evangelical Protestants are also becoming more visible on Ivy League campuses and at top law schools. But, said Notre Dame's Bradley, "I do think that there is an important truth in saying that Catholics are the intellectual pillars of social conservatism. Compared to their political allies in that movement, Catholics are heirs to a richer intellectual tradition and . . . are more inclined to believe that reason supplies good grounds for the moral and political positions characteristic of social conservatism. Call it the 'natural law' thing."