Catholic Judges in Capital Cases

49 Pages Posted: 11 Aug 2005

See all articles by John Garvey

John Garvey

Boston College - Law School

Amy Coney Barrett

Notre Dame Law School


The Catholic Church's opposition to the death penalty places Catholic judges in a moral and legal bind. While these judges are obliged by oath, professional commitment, and the demands of citizenship to enforce the death penalty, they are also obliged to adhere to their church's teaching on moral matters. Although the legal system has a solution for this dilemma by allowing the recusal of judges whose convictions keep them from doing their job, Catholic judges will want to sit whenever possible without acting immorally. However, litigants and the general public are entitled to impartial justice, which may be something a judge who is heedful of ecclesiastical pronouncements cannot dispense. Therefore, the authors argue, we need to know whether judges are legally disqualified from hearing cases that their consciences would let them decide. While mere identification of a judge as Catholic is not sufficient reason for recusal under federal law, the authors suggest that the moral impossibility of enforcing capital punishment in such cases as sentencing, enforcing jury recommendations, and affirming are in fact reasons for not participating.

Keywords: capital punishment, Catholic church, Catholic judges, judicial obligations, capital crimes, professional ethics and responsibility, moral obligations, federal judges, capital sentencing, federal recusal statute, Catholic teaching

Suggested Citation

Garvey, John and Barrett, Amy Coney, Catholic Judges in Capital Cases. Marquette Law Review, Vol. 81, pp. 303-350, 1998, Boston College Law School Research Paper No. 1998-06, Available at SSRN:

John Garvey (Contact Author)

Boston College - Law School ( email )

885 Centre Street
Newton, MA 02459-1163
United States

Amy Coney Barrett

Notre Dame Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 780
Notre Dame, IN 46556-0780
United States

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