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All Right to Weigh Faith When Picking Judges, says Federal Judge

In 2007, presidential candidate Barack Obama drew fire when he outlined how he would select nominees to the Supreme Court: "We need somebody who's got the heart, the empathy, to recognize what it's like to be a young teenage mom. The empathy to understand what it's like to be poor, or African-American, or gay, or disabled, or old. And that's the criteria by which I'm going to be selecting my judges."

President Obama got it right, said the Hon. Patrick J. Schiltz, U.S. District Judge, District of Minnesota, who delivered the 43rd Annual Pope John XXIII Lecture at the Columbus School of Law on Oct. 11, 2011.
 
During remarks titled “Can a Bad Person Be a Good Judge? The Inevitable Impact of Faith and Values on Judicial Decisions,” Schiltz acknowledged that judges cannot help but bring their personal life experiences to bear on their decisions, even if they do so unconsciously.
 
This is especially true of trial judges, who must render a far greater number of prompt decisions than is expected of their colleagues in federal appellate courts.
 
“One of the things that has surprised me most is how little time I spend interpreting the law,” said Schiltz, who was nominated to the federal bench by President George W. Bush and unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2006.
 
Schiltz said the crushing workload of most federal trial judges demands thousands of decisions from each of them every year, leaving little time to ponder weighty legal questions.
 
Given that the decisions by Schiltz and his colleagues are rarely reversed, often unreviewable, and carry momentous impact for individual human lives, candidates for the federal bench should be forthright about what guides their judicial philosophies, said Schiltz.
 
“Our decisions are influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by our religions. I can’t help but filter my perception through my personal beliefs,” he said.
 
It may have surprised some that Schiltz, a former law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, would vigorously defend the president’s view of judicial selection.
 
But Schiltz said the pressure to meet their docket obligations forces most federal trial judges to issue opinions quickly, and inevitably that means at times relying on personal views to supplement the facts of a case.
 
“We have to make decisions quickly and often on the basis of imperfect information,” he noted.
For that reason, Schlitz argued, the public has every right to examine a nominee’s religious beliefs when he or she is nominated to the federal bench.
 
An engaging and expressive speaker, Schiltz graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, served as a law clerk Justice Scalia, and was in private practice in Minneapolis.
 
In 1995 he joined the faculty of Notre Dame Law School and four years later was elected “Teacher of the Year.” In 2000, Schiltz left Notre Dame to become the founding associate dean of the University of St. Thomas School of Law. First as associate dean and then as interim dean, Schiltz had primary responsibility for almost every significant aspect of creating the new law school.