A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Catholics Who Embarrass Me -- The Sam Brownback Edition

An interesting article in today's NY Times about Sam Brownback's decision to stop blocking the nomination of Judge Janet Neff, a state judge appointed to be a federal trial judge, because she had attended and spoke at the commitment ceremony (not a gay marriage, since those were not yet legal in Mass.) of the gay child of a long-time neighbor. Brownback still plans to vote against Judge Neff. Ostensibly, his position is that she cannot be neutral in any future case involving gay marriage and so he doesn't think she belongs on the federal bench at all.

There are so many interesting things about this story. First, remember back during the fight over judicial filibusters that Republicans took the line that all of the President's qualified judicial nominees deserved an up or down vote? Apparently Brownback didn't get that memo until recently. Funny we haven't heard Bill Frist get apoplectic about Brownback's block.

Second, Brownback's explanation for his behavior is bizarre. The ability of a federal trial court judge to have much impact on the gay marriage debate is extremely limited, as Brownback surely knows.

But even if a federal trial judge could have a substantial impact on the debate, attendance at a long-time neighbor daughter's commitment ceremony is a poor proxy for determining the truth of the two premises necessary for Brownback's twisted logic to have any purchase: (1) that Judge Neff indeed has a strong opinion in support of gay marriage AND (2) that Judge Neff is unwilling to set those views aside when deciding a case regarding gay marriage.

The relationship between Judge Neff's attendance and premise (1) is undermined by the fact that a commitment ceremony has no legally binding force and is, in effect, merely a promise to remain faithful to one's partner. It's just as plausible that she attended the ceremony because, as she said, "the woman was, in effect, a part of her family and was like a big sister to her own daughters."  And the mere attendance at such an event, even if it were to support premise (1), says absolutely nothing about premise (2).

Charles Fried apparently agrees:

Charles Fried, a HarvardLaw School professor and leading conservative scholar, said Mr.Brownbacks actions were improper. First of all, people go to partiesfor all sorts of reasons, Professor Fried said, and how one would ruleon a case should not be inferred from that private activity.

In addition, the neutral-sounding explanation Brownback has come up with -- that he is concerned about the nominee's impartiality in a future gay-marriage case -- crashes into the problem that he would likely have no difficulty at all voting for a judicial nominee who strenuously opposes gay marriage. More likely, although he has not said so, Brownback thinks that anyone who would attend her neighbor's child's commitment ceremony is far too liberal to sit on the federal bench. Apparently, Brownback's opposition to gay marriage means that, confronted with a similar situation, he would have declined to attend his neighbor's daughter's ceremony. That's certainly his choice to make, but what's interesting is that he can't conceive of anyone who opposes gay marriage making a different decision. In other words, merely opposing gay marriage is not enough to qualify you for the federal bench in Brownback's view. You also have to be a sanctimonious jerk about it.

Most likely of all, though, this was just an easy opportunity for Brownback to score points with the religious right in his quest to become the Republican nominee for President in 2008. And for those purposes, nothing seems to work better than a little gay bashing. With the primaries still over a year away, we can look forward to many, many more instances of Brownback taking ridiculous positions in order to prove his social conservative bona fides.

About the Author

Eduardo Moisés Peñalver is the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the subjects of property and land use law.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

In a related story of Republican cynicism -- or is it utter confusion? -- the NYT reported a few days ago that, when asked what he thought of Mary Cheyney's raising a child with her partner, President Decider opined that he believed the baby would have very loving parents. I also seem to recall that Condoleeza Rice and Laura Bush recently attended a commitment ceremony -- though I may be wrong about that.

What evidence do you have that Brownback is merely an opportunist, as you seem to believe, and not merely misguided, as I think it is fair to say that he is?

Suppose that I am now inclined to support Brownback even more, since I have even stronger grounds to suppose he would prevent the appointment of judges hostile to marriage. Does this make me evil, dumb or both? In any event, I suppose that I am bound to embarrass you too. More's the pity.Just supposing of course. I merely wish to indicate the tone of your "argument" seems to foreclose any further consideration of the issue.

As an admittedly tangential but related issue, the John Jay Report states that 80.9% of molests by priests were male, and 85.8% were between the ages of 10 and 17. It is this obsession with preteen and teen males that has compelled me to oppose the entry of gay men into the priesthood. Please forgive me the tangentiality of this post.

Well, how about, "he's a dumb opportunist." He is trying to court favor with social conservatives for a possible presidential run, so I think this was opportunistic. But I assume that when he realized what the corollary to his request would or could be, he realized how silly it was and backed down. For instance, should we request that those jurists who attend mass refrain from ruling on any matter that affects the legal status of the Catholic Church?

Before hastily concluding that Brownback is an embarrassing opportunist we might want to consider some of the more positive views of the Senator (and his religious beliefs) that come from the secular left:The Dec 18 issue of The New Republic: Political or not, Brownback's path to Catholicism appears to have motivated his broadening interest in human rights. In the years since September 11, Brownback has taken on more or less the entire Republican Party in a fight to protect the rights of political refugees, not exactly a popular crusade in the middle of the war on terrorism. In recent years, Brownback has even begun a very public reconsideration of his support for the death penalty. At a hearing earlier this year, Brownback solicited testimony from families of victims on both sides of the issue. Afterward, a Kansas City Star reporter asked which stance he found more compelling. Brownback wouldn't say, but he noted how the death penalty supporters looked angry and hard. In Christian theology, the burden is on the person who has not forgiven, he said. Then there is the immigration issue, which is either a colossal political miscalculation or the policy equivalent of Catholic self-flagellation. In 2005, Brownback signed on as a co-sponsor to the relatively moderate Kennedy-McCain bill. The reaction from rank-and-file Republicans has not been kind. Steve Scheffler, the head of a conservative evangelical group in Iowa, told me, "The biggest thing [Brownback would] have to address is why did he vote for that horrendous bill?" Kensinger says Brownback's answer is simple: The Bible says you will be judged by how you treat the widow, the orphan, the foreign among you. That's the end of it." Times columnist Nick Kristof is also not embarrassed to endorse Brownbacks humanitarian efforts. He is treated in a favorable light in many Kristof columns and particularly in regard to Darfur. Heres one excerpt:"So, all in all, I find Brownback perhaps the most intriguing man in Washington -- so wrong on so much, and yet such a leader on humanitarian issues. He is also working with liberals like Ted Kennedy to press for immigration reform, prison reform, increased funds for AIDS and malaria, construction of an African-American history museum and even an apology to American Indians."

Like all of us, Mr. Brownback does both good and bad.This choice was basically stupid. I'm not sure what mlj means by "judges hostile to marriage" though I suspect there's a bit of question begging in the phrase.I think Mr. Scwartz's post was truly tangential and smacks of seeing the clergy sex abuse problem as a gay problem rather than a power/maturity issue.So, at bottom, I agree with the notion that this action was an embarrassment, I don't think we should categorize \the Senator as an oportunist and I hope we're not going to get the same reptitious posts on attacks on mariage from some posters.

I agree that Brownback is pretty embarrassing, for all the reasons Eduardo mentions. But it's also true that he's far more consistent in his application of Catholic social teachings than many of his fellow Republicans. OK, so maybe the bar is not so high :)

Brownback is a member of a dying breed - those whose invincible ignorance about simple human experience is blocked by their ostensible "commitment" to a totally misunderstood grasp of the teachings and practice of Jesus. If he would read the Gospels instead of right-wing "Catholic" blogs, he would learn that Our Lord reached out to those who society labelled as "sinners" (see: woman caught in sin; tax collector in the tree; the prodigal "son"; and many others). The mark of a true Christian is forgiveness, not condemnation.

Although Sen. Brownback's comments are rather ridiculous, I would like to point out that in many ways, he is not the typical right-winger. He has worked extremely hard to form legislation against global sex trafficking while also working with prisons for reform. Check out this article (albiet from a conservative source): Brownback's stupid decision in this judge's case was merely a play for the right side of the GOP presidential primaries. It almost doesn't seem consistent with his more Catholic viewpoints.- Joe from Fordham

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment