Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have questioned a candidate for the federal bench over his membership of the Knights of Columbus, with some calling the group’s Catholic views on abortion and same-sex marriage “extreme.” Senators also questioned if belonging to the Catholic charitable organization could prevent judges from hearing cases “fairly and impartially.”
Senators Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) raised membership of the Knights as a point of concern during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s consideration of Brian C. Buescher, an Omaha-based lawyer nominated by President Trump to sit on the United States District Court for the District of Nebraska.
In written questions sent to Mr. Buescher by committee members Dec. 5, Sen. Hirono stated that “the Knights of Columbus has taken a number of extreme positions. For example, it was reportedly one of the top contributors to California’s Proposition 8 campaign to ban same-sex marriage.”
Hirono then asked Buescher if he would quit the group if he was confirmed “to avoid any appearance of bias.”
“The Knights of Columbus does not have the authority to take personal political positions on behalf of all of its approximately two million members,” Buescher responded.
“If confirmed, I will apply all provisions of the Code of Conduct for United States Judges regarding recusal and disqualification,” he said.
Kathleen Blomquist, spokesperson for the Knights of Columbus, told CNA that the senators’ questions echoed the kind of anti-Catholicism seen in previous generations.
“We were extremely disappointed to see that one’s commitment to Catholic principles through membership in the Knights of Columbus—a charitable organization that adheres to and promotes Catholic teachings — would be viewed as a disqualifier from public service in this day and age,” Blomquist told CNA.
President Trump nominated Buescher to serve on the U.S. District Court on Nov. 3. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on Buescher’s nomination Nov. 28, sending written questions to him on Dec. 5.
The Knights of Columbus is present in 17 countries world-wide. In 2017, members carried out more than 75 million hours of volunteer work and raised more than $185 million for charitable purposes. Successive popes, including Pope Francis, have written to the group praising them for their charitable work and the manner in which they articulate Catholic faith and values.
“Our country’s sad history of anti-Catholic bigotry contributed to the founding of the Knights of Columbus, and we are proud of the many Catholics who overcame this hurdle to contribute so greatly to our country,” Blomquist said.
In her questions to the nominee, Sen. Harris described the Knights as “an all-male society” and asked if Buescher was aware that the Knights of Columbus “opposed a woman’s right to choose” and were against “marriage equality” when he joined.
Responding to the senator’s questions, Buescher confirmed that he has been a member of the Knights since he was 18 years old, noting that his membership “has involved participation in charitable and community events in local Catholic parishes.”
“I do not recall if I was aware whether the Knights of Columbus had taken a position on the abortion issue when I joined at the age of 18,” he wrote in response.
Harris highlighted a statement by Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson that abortion constituted “the killing of the innocent on a massive scale” and asked Buescher if he agreed with Anderson.
Buescher said he was not responsible for drafting statements or policies made by the Knights and that, as a federal judge, he would consider himself bound by judicial precedent regarding abortion.
“I did not draft this language. If confirmed, I would be bound by precedent of the United States Supreme Court and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and would not be guided by statements made by others,” Buescher told the senator.
In reaction to the questions put to Buescher, Blomquist told CNA that asking a judicial nominee to defend his membership of a major Catholic charitable organization was disturbing.
“We believe that membership in the Knights of Columbus, which helps everyday men put their Catholic faith into action, is worthy of commendation and not something a nominee for public office should be asked to defend,” she said.
In 2014, Buescher ran as a candidate in the Republican primary election for Nebraska attorney general. During that campaign he described himself as “avidly pro-life” and said that opposition to abortion was part of his “moral fabric.”
Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) noted the nominee’s previously outspoken opposition to abortion and asked “why should a litigant in your courtroom expect to get a fair hearing from an impartial judge in a case involving abortion rights?”
Buescher responded that “as a candidate for Nebraska Attorney General in 2014, I did what candidates for any major state or federal office do, which is to take political positions on a variety of issues of the day.”
“However, there is a difference between taking political positions as a candidate for elective office and serving as a federal judge. I believe a judge’s role and obligation is to apply the law without regard to any personal beliefs regarding the law,” Buescher wrote.
“If confirmed, I will faithfully apply all United States Supreme Court and Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals precedent on all issues, including Roe v. Wade.”
Buescher also fielded questions from senators about Trump administration policy on Title X funding for clinics providing abortions and referrals, as well as on the application of anti-discrimination law to gay people and on LGBT questions.
The nominee underscored that, as a judge, it was not for him to advance personal or political opinions but to make fair and impartial rulings based on the law and judicial precedent.
If confirmed by the Senate, Buescher will fill the vacancy left by Judge Laurie Smith Camp, who assumed senior status – a kind of judicial semi-retirement – on Dec. 1.