Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Demographics and The Supremes

Yesterday evening, as I browsed the NY Times RSS feed, I saw a headline about retiring Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens: “Justice Stevens, the Only Protestant on the Supreme Court”. The summary in the RSS feed said this:

The Supreme Court is made up of six Roman Catholics, two Jews and Justice John Paul Stevens. His retirement makes possible a court without a single member of the nation’s majority religion.

“Say what?”, said I, bristling. “Have we gone so far back in time that we’re going to worry about the religious affiliations of our Supreme Court justices?”

I clicked through to the article, though, and I was relieved: no; indeed, that’s exactly the point of the article, that we used to care about that, but we don’t any more. It used to be a big deal to consider appointing Catholics or Jews, but now it’s not remarkable.

Instead, we pay attention to other things, for better or for worse:

On the other hand, society seems to demand that the court carry a certain demographic mix.

It is hard to imagine the court without a black justice, for instance, and it may well turn out that Justice Sonia Sotomayor is sitting in a new “Hispanic seat.” It would surprise no one if President Obama tried to increase the number of women on the court to three.

I prefer that, but what I’m really waiting for is when it doesn’t matter at all. When we put people in positions based purely on their qualifications, and we honestly don’t think it matters whether they’re men or women, and what their ethnic backgrounds are. We’re a long way from that now, of course, and for now, it’s important to have a mix. I’m glad to see — especially considering the resurgence of the importance of religion in politics — that religion is not part of that mix today.

Mark Tushnet, a law professor at Harvard, had another suggestion.

President Obama, he said, could use Justice Stevens’s retirement as an opportunity both to honor tradition and to break new ground.

“The smartest political move,” he said, “would be to nominate an openly gay, Protestant guy.”

No, that’s not it. Let’s really show that it doesn’t matter. Pick an atheist.

Or is that still beyond the pale?


Nathaniel Borenstein said...

Beyond the pale? I'm amazed that I can't find any more recent prominent atheist American politicians than Culbert Olson, governor of California 1939-43. Wow.

However, it's worth noting that, according to


Barack Obama's father is an atheist. Go, team!

D. said...

If it really didn't matter, Barry, then it would be okay with you if he were a progressive-thinking evangelical Christian.

Barry Leiba said...

Actually, that would be OK with me, if I were convinced that the nominee were sufficiently forward-thinking and liberal-minded.

Nathaniel Borenstein said...

Barry, your latest comment itself illustrates why identity politics aren't going away. How would an evangelical Christian prove to you that he was progressive-thinking? Very slowly -- your guard would be up, and you'd have to really pay attention. In contrast, a gay atheist would have to try hard to convince you that he was NOT progressive-thinking. Most people don't pay that much attention, and that's why identity politics are so important/effective.