How Is Sotomayor Doing?

I was one of those who opposed the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, mainly because the pick was based on race and gender rather than merit and she was disingenuous and obfuscatory at her confirmation hearings. Well, the Court still hasn’t decided any cases argued with Justice Sotomayor on the bench – and the first term isn’t always indicative of the kind of jurist a new justice will be – but we do have some early statistics about her performance.

It turns out that, unlike her next most junior colleague, Justice Alito – who hung back early in his tenure while learning the rhythms of the Court – Justice Sotomayor has not been a shrinking violet in her questioning of advocates. Indeed, according to a National Law Journal tally, during the 13 November arguments that just concluded, she asked 146 questions (or 11.2 per case), which is even ahead of where Chief Justice Roberts was at this point in his career.  And, because Sotomayor speaks more often than her more reserved predecessor, Justice Souter, she has made a “hot” bench even hotter.

By another indicator, however, Sotomayor ranks at the bottom of the Supreme Court table: Apparently her questioning has not yet generated a single laugh (as measured by such indications in the argument transcript).  Not surprisingly, Justice Scalia leads in that department – as he long has, both in absolute and per-question terms – with the Chief being the only other justice in double figures.  Joining Sotomayor with a goose-egg so far this year are Justices Ginsburg and Thomas (who hasn’t asked a question since 2006).  If you’re curious about last year’s final standings, see here.

For what it’s worth, all this accords with the sense I’ve gotten from the handful of times I’ve been to the Court for oral argument so far this term. To my mind, Sotomayor is still acting as a Court of Appeals judge – or maybe even a district judge – asking simpler questions about the factual record or procedural history rather than the broader issues the Court tends to grapple with.  And therefore I’ll go out on a counterintuitive limb here to predict that, as Sotomayor settles into her new role, her questioning will become less frequent but more substantive.