Judge Diane Woods is not Jewish. She’s Protestant. And that makes her ruling in the so-called Mezuzah Case even more powerful.
Woods is one of Obama’s top contenders to fill the Supreme Court seat being vacated by John Paul Stevens. In 2009, she was part of a three-judge panel hearing a case that tells us all we need to know about her heart and values.
The plaintiffs in the case, Lynne Bloch and her children, were long-time residents of Chicago’s Shoreline Towers. The Blochs had displayed mezuzot on their doorposts — as Jews do the world over — for 30 years, without objection.
But in 2001, the condo association adopted new rules: “Mats, boots, shoes, carts or objects of any sort are prohibited outside Unit entrance doors.” And soon enough, the condo began confiscating the Bloch’s mezuzuot.
Reading the case, it’s shocking to see what the Blochs endured. The condo association president told Lynn that if she didn’t like the way the rules were enforced, she should “get out.” And, when Lynne was on the condo board herself, the president held events Friday night — even though he knew Lynne, who observes the Sabbath, couldn’t attend. (When asked whether he was aware of Lynne’s religious obligations, he said, “She’s perfectly able [to attend],” but “she decides not to.”)
For over a year, every time the Blochs put a mezuzah up, the association took it down. When Lynne’s husband Marvin died, Lynne put in a special request, asking for the mezuzah to be allowed during the 7-day shiva period. The association relented. Yet when Lynne and her family returned from the burial with the rabbi, they were shocked to find the mezuzah had been removed. They were humiliated.
The Blochs sued for damages, and also filed suit in federal court, alleging their civil rights had been violated.
At the Appeals Court level, the three-judge panel initially ruled in favor of the condo association. Judge Woods dissented. She believed the family had the right to hang the mezuzah on its doorpost, and that denying them that right was discriminatory.
When the case came before the the full court, Woods still seemed to be in the minority. Judge Frank Easterbrook argued that the perhaps the condo’s rule was not discriminatory, but had been put forth, as the Times reports, “with a completely empty head by people who didn’t have a clue about the religious significance of the mezuzah.”
Woods pushed back hard, and eventually swayed the panel to rule unanimously in the Bloch’s favor.
Supreme Court watchers say the case illustrates Judge Wood’s powers of persuasion — a key asset, as whomever Obama appoints will need to be able to woo Justice Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote in a hotly divided court.
But I think it’s more important for another reason. It shows that Woods has empathy, and a keen sense of justice and fairness.
No doubt, if she’s chosen, the right will attack her as an activist, radical judge. The conservative Judicial Confirmation Network is on record saying Judge Woods “has betrayed a consistent hostility to religious litigants and religious interests.”
“At the center of this case is a little rectangular box,” the Court wrote, “about six inches tall, one inch wide, and one inch deep, which houses a small scroll of parchment inscribed with passages from the Torah, the holiest of texts in Judaism.”
Judge Woods antithetical to religious interests? The Blochs of Chicago would disagree.