Today, 90-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens announced that this will be his final term on the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). His retirement comes as no surprise - he'd previously declared that he intended to retire during President Obama's term. But Steven's absence leaves more than just a gaping liberal hole on the Court: Stevens was the last remaining Protestant Justice (Justices Scalia, Thomas, Alito, Kennedy, and The Chief are Catholic; Ginsberg and Breyer are Jews). That means that the highest Court in the land is (and has been) a poor representative cross-section of the religious beliefs of the U.S. (which is about 51% Protestant, 23% Catholic, and under 2% Jewish).
Obama's nomination (say that three times fast) of rookie Justice Sonia Sotomayor was deliberately targeted to address concerns that there were too few women on the Court (in a country that is 51% female) and no Latinos (in a country that is at least 14% Hispanic). But, other than interrogations and speculations about her potential abortion vote, neither Congress nor the media commented widely on her Catholicism, or exploded the fact that her appointment would contribute to a substantial Catholic bloc. I didn't even realize how glaring the omission was until NPR pointed it out THIS WEEK.
So, what happens now? Stevens is officially leaving and Obama is poised to appoint his second SCOTUS Justice in two years. Obama can't want a repeat of Sotomayor's confirmation hearings - the days of questioning seemed exhausting and tedious to just about everyone watching (except maybe Robert Bork; I bet he thought it was a breeze). The brunt of the criticism was that Sotomayor would let her personal experiences (the infamous phrase "wise Latina woman" still rings in our ears) get the better of her legal judgment.
I recently had the opportunity to hear Dahlia Lithwick speak on about the hearings. (Dahlia is the girl-crush of every NPR-loving SCOTUS junkie, aka, me). She made a lot of interesting points about the approach to Sotomayor, which you can read for yourself if you'd like. But her speech concluded that the lasting result of the media circus was to make "activist" and "empathy" dirty words when describing a potential Justice. We already knew that to gain bipartisan approval (if there is such a thing any more - Olympia Snowe doesn't count), Obama's next nominee needed a lengthy judicial record closely tied to interpreting written law, legislative history, and the specific language of the Constitution. But in Stevens' wake, there may be a new criteria: good old fashioned Protestantism.
It is a little amazing that in the 200 years of white male Justices (and Presidents - Kennedy is still our only Catholic), "diversity" on the Court may now require a conscious effort to pick a Protestant. If Obama ignores the religious majority, he may face (even heavier) criticism by constituents. (Constituents who the Dems desperately need to win over before mid-term elections.) So, his task is simple: find a pro-choice, anti-gun, pro-business, strict-Constructionist, Asian, female, Baptist and nominate the shit out of her.