Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Saturday, May 7, 2022

The "Black Legend" (of American constitutional law) returns

Fifteen years ago (!), when I was visiting at the University of Chicago Law School (a wonderful experience), I contributed a response to a post (on the Law School's blog . . . remember those?) by Geof Stone, in which he shared what he called a "painfully awkward observation" that the justices in the majority of the Court's Gonzales v. Carhart - in which the Court upheld a ban on partial-birth abortions -- were Catholic.  "It is mortifying to have to point this out. But it is too obvious, and too telling, to ignore[,]" he said.  "[T]hese justices have failed to respect the fundamental difference between religious belief and morality," he charged.

Brian Leiter recently re-upped Prof. Stone's con-law version of The Black Legend, here.  He wrote (while conceding, as anyone must, the "unhappy fact is that there are clearly colorable legal arguments for overruling Roe"): 

Stone's analysis generated an uproar, but it was correct then, as it would be correct now:  someone with a conservative Catholic upbringing will of course regard abortion as verboten, and will thus find attractive--even without recognizing their real motivations--any colorable legal arguments that return the question of its permissibility to the legislative process (knowing full well, of course, that its availability will be restricted as a result).

As I wrote, though, in my response to Geof way-back-when, (a) there is nothing "Catholic" about the idea that the Constitution did and does not disable political majorities from enacting reasonable regulations of abortion (including, among other things, a prohibition on a procedure that involves sticking a scissor through the skull of a still-living fetus and "evacuating" his or her "cranial contents"), and (b) it is at least as likely that the non-Catholic justices' (both in Carhart and in -- it appears -- Dobbs) various commitments supplied "motivations" for disregarding what many of us think are straightforward, unremarkable analyses and arguments.  

I wrote then (I still cannot get over how long ago that was!):

[I]t is not clear why the claim "human fetuses are moral subjects and this fact constrains what should be done with and to them" is any more "religious", or any less "moral", than the claim "all human beings are moral equals, regardless of race, and should be treated as such in law."  What's more, even if it were true that the former claim is "religious" (certainly, for many, it is religiously motivated or grounded), it does not violate -- indeed, I do not think it even implicates -- the "separation of church and state" that our Constitution is thought to require.

It is interesting, I think, that Professor Stone invokes the example of Justice Brennan.  Although I believe that Roe was wrongly decided, it is impossible not to admire the Justice.  And, to me, it is clear that Justice Brennan's powerful opinions in Furman and Gregg -- with their strong and stirring invocations of "human dignity" as a limit on what governments may do the accused -- reflect views that, for Justice Brennan, were rooted in his religious faith.  Was he, therefore, a "faith-based justice" when he voted to strike down every death-penalty law in the nation?


Garnett, Rick | Permalink


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