If Sonia Sotomayor is confirmed to the Supreme Court, she will be only the twelfth Roman Catholic justice in history. But what is remarkable is that six of those 12, if you include her, will be on the Court that convenes in October.
"There's an arc of history with seats on the Court that starts with a group that was discriminated against, then it develops and reaches a peak and assimilation, and then it no longer becomes an issue," says political scientist Barbara Perry of Sweet Briar College, a Court scholar who is working on a book on the Catholic justices.
What is interesting now, however, is that Catholics on the Court have become so common -- six out of nine -- that people are taking notice again, Perry says. "It's interesting that this follows by a couple of weeks the kerfuffle over President Obama speaking at Notre Dame. Maybe there isn't safety in numbers." Perry says she has already heard from Catholics who fear a backlash because of the high numbers.
But Sotomayor, who is said to attend church for family events, may not be easily lumped together with the Court's other five Catholics: John Roberts Jr., Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito Jr. All are on the conservative wing on the Court, though Kennedy is often a swing vote.
Perry says the more liberal Sotomayor may be "the next Brennan," referring to the late liberal lion William Brennan Jr., who was Catholic.
President Andrew Jackson appointed the first Catholic, Roger Taney, in 1835, and other Catholics were named sporadically ever since. But the numbers began to expand when Scalia and Kennedy were appointed in the 1980s, joining Brennan. When Brennan retired, Episcopalian David Souter replaced him. Clarence Thomas was born a Baptist but attended Catholic schools and even studied for the priesthood. He was counted as an Episcopalian when he joined the Court in 1991. He announced his return to Catholicism in 1996.
Among the remaining three justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer are Jewish and John Paul Stevens is Protestant.