How does religion affect Jewish justices’ opinions?

How does religion affect Jewish justices’ opinions?

Slate editor to discuss Judaism’s influence on Kagan, Ginsburg, Breyer

Dahlia Lithwick says Jewish values “play a part in jurisprudence.”
Dahlia Lithwick says Jewish values “play a part in jurisprudence.”

It may be a familiar question but the answer is rarely heard discussed at length: Does a judge’s religious background affect his or her exercise of jurisprudence?

Dahlia Lithwick — a senior editor at Slate, who writes the “Supreme Court Dispatch” and “Jurisprudence” columns for the online magazine and hosts its biweekly Amicus podcast — will lecture on the subject as it pertains to the Jewish Supreme Court Associate Justices Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer on Sunday evening, May 5, at Congregation Ohr Shalom-The Summit Jewish Community Center.

“It’s a subject that’s really not talked about a lot,’’ said Lithwick. “But it’s one we should really be talking about because it is important. I am looking forward to addressing that in my lecture and discussion in New Jersey….“After all, three of the nine present justices are Jewish.”

Lithwick, a 51-year-old native of Ottawa, has written for Slate on legal issues since 1999 and is a contributing editor at Newsweek. She received her bachelor’s degree from Yale and law degree from Stanford.

A past member of a family law firm in Reno, Nev., she received the 2018 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism from the Sidney Hillman Foundation, which described her as “the nation’s best legal commentator for two decades.”

“I enjoy writing and commenting about the law and feel it is important the public understands as much as they can about how court decisions affect their lives,” Lithwick said. “I always look to contribute.”

Lithwick, who is Jewish, said she bases a lot of her daily life and work on Jewish values, and she believes judges often do the same regarding the faiths they were brought up in.

“Certainly their experiences growing up, where and how they did, would influence the belief of any judge, all the way to the Supreme Court,” said Lithwick. “I have seen it in my many years of writing about them.’’

Her decades of Supreme Court coverage have not gone unnoticed — she testified before Congress about access to justice in the present John Roberts Supreme Court era, and was called “spicy” by Ginsburg and labeled “some hack” by Justice Samuel Alito (a native of Trenton who grew up in Hamilton and raised his family in West Caldwell).

Lithwick sees differences in how Judaism has molded Kagan, Ginsburg, and Breyer, who, with Justice Sonia Sotomayor, form the “liberal wing” of an increasingly conservative Supreme Court.

“While both Kagan and Ginsburg certainly have Judaism in their lives in many aspects, feeling its influence in their approaches to their work, Breyer is more of a West Coast secular Jew,” said Lithwick, adding that “his daughter, Chloe, is an Episcopalian minister.” (She is also executive director of the Interfaith Center of New York.)

Kagan, 58, known for espousing liberal views, is also regarded as something of a centrist. A Conservative Jew today, she was the first girl to read Torah at her bat mitzvah in her Orthodox synagogue in New York City, after her insistence that she be afforded the same opportunities as boys. She attended Princeton and Oxford universities and Harvard Law School. Kagan was nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed as a Supreme Court justice in 2010.

Ginsburg, 86, who states she is not particularly observant religiously, witnessed discrimination against Jews and others in her childhood, which could contribute to her record on the court regarding such issues as discrimination and women’s rights.

She was nominated by President Bill Clinton and took her seat on the bench in 1993.

Breyer, 80, has been a champion of reproductive rights and is regarded as a pragmatist on the court.

His Jewish awareness was on display in 1995, when he and Ginsburg requested of then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist that the court not hear arguments on Yom Kippur because Jewish lawyers presenting before the court should not have to choose between their observance and work on that day.

Rehnquist agreed and the court has not heard arguments on Yom Kippur since. Breyer was nominated by Clinton and became an associate justice
in 1994.

“Jewish values certainly play a part in jurisprudence in many areas,” said Lithwick. “This is the case with women’s rights, abortion rights, discrimination, and education.”

And the Supreme Court’s decision to keep the “lights off” on Yom Kippur.

If you go

Who: Dahlia Lithwick

“Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan: How Their Judaism Affects
Their Legal Opinions”

Sunday, May 5, 7 p.m.

Congregation Ohr Shalom-SJCC

$18. Send check, payable to SJCC, to Congregation Ohr
Shalom-SJCC, 67 Kent Place Boulevard, Summit, N.J. 07901,
or go to

908-273-8130 or

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