By Rob Abruzzese
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Discussing religion is not always easy. That’s particularly true for judges, who are expected to be the arbiters of the “wall of separation” between church and state. However, that’s exactly what the Catholic Lawyers Guild of Kings County set out to do on Wednesday night as they hosted a discussion called “Faith in the Law.”
The Guild, along with the Columbian Lawyers Association of Brooklyn, the Jewish Lawyers Guild and the Church of St. Boniface, hosted a panel of four judges at St. Francis College on Wednesday night where they discussed how their own religious beliefs play a role in their decision making.
“At the Catholic Lawyers Guild, we believe religion plays a very important role in everything we do in daily life,” said Joseph Rosato, president of the Guild. “One of the main things that we do is practice law and try to have justice for all and in this state in particular. So we wanted to explore how religion can play in that on a daily basis.”
Hon. Robert J. Miller, associate justice of the Appellate Division, 2nd Judicial Department, and a member of the Catholic Lawyers Guild, was the moderator for the event. Hon. Jonathan Lippman, chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals; Hon. Joseph Frank Bianco, federal court judge, Eastern District of New York; and Hon. L. Priscilla Hall, associate justice of the Appellate Division, 2nd Judicial Department, were the distinguished panelists.
“We had a judge from the Protestant faith, a judge of the Jewish faith and a judge of the Catholic faith, just so that we could get a little bit of variety,” Rosato said. “It's the first time the Catholic Lawyers Guild has done a program of this nature.”
Justice Miller, who always brings a bit of humor when he speaks, probed the panelists to get their input on how religion plays a role in their decision-making, whether it is possible to completely take religious beliefs out of decision making, and if and when it is appropriate for judges to recuse themselves from certain cases where religion comes into play. For the last 45 minutes of the roughly two-hour event, the judges took questions from the audience.
“I don’t think you can ever completely take your religious hat off,” Judge Lippman said. “It’s not like you are consulting the Bible when you make decisions, though. It’s a part of our makeup. You are just trying to do what you think is right and what’s good.”
Judge Hall agreed, “I don’t go to the Bible for a case, but your upbringing influences you.”
Judge Bianco, who recently became a deacon in the Catholic Church, answered, “I’ve probably issued over 1,000 decisions, and I can’t think of a time where being Catholic came into play. I’m a judge, I have to think of what the law is.”
Bianco later said that he feels that being a Catholic comes more into play when it comes time for sentencing, “There are cases with mandatory minimums where I would probably sentence less. I do think my Catholic faith plays a role in how I’m sentencing.”
There was a good audience-instigated discussion on when it’s right or wrong for judges to recuse themselves. The judges had slightly varying opinions, but ultimately everyone seemed to agree with Judge Miller’s closing statements on the argument: “If you automatically have decided something before the cases comes before you, then you have to recuse yourself because you’re not really being a judge.”
“I think [Judge Miller] did a fantastic job and the panelists were really great,” Rosato said in closing. “Each of them really delved deeply into their beliefs and expressed that to everyone here. The three judges were not picked by accident. These were really well accomplished jurists, and we wanted to get their insight.“