United States Supreme Court Building on a sunny day, with blue cloudless sky in the background. The Supreme Court Building is built in the Neoclassical style. The public façade is made of marble quarried from Vermont, and features 24 columns.

Faith and the Bench

David Ryden, Ph.D. | Peter C. and Emajean Cook Professor of Political Science

In September 2017, the Senate Judiciary Committee questioned Amy Barrett, a federal appellate-court nominee, about whether her Catholic faith would influence her decision-making as a judge and perhaps disqualify her from a seat on the federal bench. From his office in Lubbers Hall, Dr. David Ryden was paying close attention.

Ryden has been studying the impact of religious conviction in relation to the state, as well as ways in which judges contemplate certain issues. Prompting his research was a shift in the United States Supreme Court’s makeup; for nearly 200 years, it was composed overwhelmingly of Protestants, but over recent decades it evolved into a court made up exclusively of Jewish and Catholic justices.

To better determine the effect of religious conviction on judicial behavior, Ryden is focused on a few key questions: Do judges’ religious commitments shape their judicial philosophies and practices? How do religious convictions play out in judicial behavior — do judges explicitly invoke their religious beliefs as they reach judicial results, or is the effect indirect? Under which circumstances do religious viewpoints appear to be relevant? And, finally, what are the implications of judges’ religious backgrounds for the purposes of judicial selection?

Largely a qualitative research project, Ryden’s work involves biographical research on judges, including their religious affiliations and convictions, as well as a textual analysis of their opinions in cases in which religious views might be relevant to outcomes. Once this research is conducted, Ryden will connect the dots between the biographical research and the textual analysis.

Gabrielle Barber ’18, a political science major with a pre-law focus, has assisted Ryden with his research. “Gabby was instrumental in conducting an exhaustive literature review, plumbing law reviews and journals to see what has been done on this topic,” Ryden explains. “She also provided an excellent summary of the existing literature to assist me in assessing what it says.” Barber will produce her own independent analysis.

Ryden’s research is timely given President Trump’s 2017 appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch, the Supreme Court’s lone Protestant. He replaced the late Antonin Scalia, a Catholic. Gorsuch is known for his vigorous defense of religious liberty and his textualist approach to constitutional practice, as he leans more heavily on actual constitutional language.

“As we continue to look for points of intersection between judges’ religiosity and their judging, judges in the mold of Gorsuch and Barrett will be important figures to keep an eye on,” Ryden says.

At this point, his findings are preliminary. However, he’s already noticed connections between religious views and judicial behavior.

“We’ve just scratched the surface of this topic, though,” he adds. “I can’t wait to see what we discover next.”