Tag: diane wood

Kagan Nomination Launches Constitutional Debate

As expected, and despite an exhaustive review of shortlist candidates, dead-end leaks about Hillary Clinton, and other distractions, President Obama settled on the long-time prohibitive favorite to be his next Supreme Court nominee.  Elena Kagan became the justice-in-waiting the moment Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed, so you didn’t have to be Tom Goldstein to have predicted this.  The president wanted a highly credentialed non-judge who would serve for a long time and wouldn’t cost too much political capital.  He got a 50-year-old solicitor general and former dean of Harvard Law School – the first female in each post – whose record the Senate (and media, and activists) already examined in a confirmation process that put her into her current post.  That her appointment would put three women on the high court for the first time also doesn’t hurt.

Kagan is certainly not the worst possible nominee from among those in the potential pool – that would’ve been Harold Koh, had President Obama been most inclined to appoint the first Asian-American justice – but others would have been better in various ways.  Although all Democratic nominees would be expected to have similar views on hot-button “culture war” issues like abortion, gay rights and gun control, Diane Wood is a renowned expert on antitrust and complex commercial litigation, for example, and Merrick Garland would almost certainly bring a stronger understanding of administrative law.  Although some on the left are concerned that replacing Justice John Paul Stevens with Kagan “moves the Court to the right,” there is no indication that the solicitor general is anything but a standard modern liberal, with all the unfortunate views that entails on the scope of federal power.  Another concern is her mediocre performance in her current position – the choices of which legal arguments to make from those available to her in defending federal laws in Citizens United and United States v. Stevens, for example, were not strategically sound – though she may well be better suited to a judicial rather than advocacy role.

In any event, with Democrats still holding a 59-seat Senate majority, Elena Kagan’s confirmation is in no doubt whatsoever.  The more interesting aspect of the next couple of months, culminating in hearings before the Judiciary Committee, will be the debate over the meaning of the Constitution and what limits there are to government action.  In an election year when a highly unpopular and patently unconstitutional health care “reform” was rammed through Congress using every procedural gimmick imaginable, voters are more sensitive to constitutional discourse now than they have been in decades.  From bailing out the financial and auto industries to fining every man, woman and child who doesn’t buy a government-approved health insurance policy – and, coming soon, regulating carbon emissions – the Obama administration is taking over civil society at a rate that alarms Americans and fuels both Tea Party populism and interest in libertarian policy solutions (which Cato is happy to offer but wishes were implemented on the front end instead of being invoked as a response to destructive statism).  The Kagan nomination is the perfect vehicle for a public airing of these important issues.

Senators should thus ask questions about the meaning of the Commerce Clause, the Necessary and Proper Clause, and the General Welfare Clause, to name but three provisions under which courts have ratified incredible assertions of federal power divorced from those the Constitution discretely enumerates.  If Elena Kagan refuses to answer such queries substantively – employing the usual dodge that she may be called upon to interpret these clauses as justice – we can rightfully hold that response against her, as she herself counseled in a law review article 15 years ago.

Sotomayor Displays a Lack of Deep Thinking

It strikes me that Sotomayor has been fairly forthright in her responses to questioning, not hiding too much behind the tired cliché that she can’t answer a question because it could lead to prejudging a case—certainly far less than Ruth Bader Ginsburg and even John Roberts.  Still, on several important issues, such as property rights, national security law, abortion, and even her overall judicial philosophy, she has appeared disingenuous in saying that she has no firm views on the subject—hiding behind precedent again and again as if first principles didn’t exist.  In other words, she says a lot—displaying a broad knowledge of cases and legal doctrine—without answering larger questions.  She answers questions about what the law should be with what the law is, questions about what the Constitution says with what the Supreme Court has said about the Constitution.

This would be barely appropriate for a nominee to a lower court, who is, of course, bound by precedent.  But senators rightly want to know a Supreme Court nominee’s preferred legal theories, what her view of the Constitution is unencumbered by others’ attempts to interpret that document.

The more Sotomayor speaks, the more it becomes clear that these types of nonanswers, this inability to see (or lack of desire to express) a big picture view, is her own essence.  It continues a pattern that is evident from her judicial opinions, which are mostly unremarkable and, in the neutral sense of that term, unimpressive.  For all her career success and a personal story we should all celebrate, she is an average judge who apparently gives little thought to the broad swath of law and where her rulings fit into that.

That is, Sonia Sotomayor is not a Cass Sunstein or Larry Tribe or Elana Kagan or (fellow circuit judge) Diane Wood.  She is not a scholar or an ideologue.  Her liberality is reflexive and warmed-over, a product of the post-modern educational environment that formed her in the 1970s—complete with ethnic activism—but not an intellectual edifice.  This does not mean she isn’t a danger to liberty and the rule of law, or that her votes and opinions won’t harm the Constitution.  But it does indicate that, for all her bluster about being a “wise Latina,” she is little more than a left-leaning empty robe.

CP Townhall

Responses to My Comments About Sotomayor

As might be expected, I have received much email responding to my CNN.com commentary about Obama’s Supreme Court pick. Some of it has been favorable, some less so (and some simply incoherent). One particular email covered most if not all concerns – and quite thoughtfully at that – so I thought I would share this exchange with a reader who emailed me his comments:

I read  your piece “Sotomayor Pick Not Based on Merit”, where you write, “in over 10 years on the Second Circuit, she has not issued any important decisions”.

Granted that I’m a layman, not a legal scholar or anything - this list seems quite impressive, and, as a whole, pretty non-ideological.

In reviewing this list, I found myself disagreeing with her here and there, but I couldn’t find something that really irked me. Can you?

According to the authors, “Since joining the Second Circuit in 1998, Sotomayor has authored over 150 opinions, addressing a wide range of issues, in civil cases.” And that “To date, two of these decisions have been overturned by the Supreme Court; a third is under review and likely to be reversed.” 2 out of over 150, is not a bad record at all.

You also write that she’s “far less qualified for a seat on the Supreme Court than Judges Diane Wood and Merrick Garland or Solicitor General Elena Kagan.”

I did a bit of research on them, and I’m not sure why you reached that conclusion. They are all qualified, in some respects Wood and Kagan are a bit more impressive, but you give the impression that she’s not highly qualified, and I don’t see evidence for that. On the contrary, she seems highly qualified - she has a long judicial and academic record, she has dealt with a myriad of issues, and has authored a vast amount of rulings, which, as far as I’ve seen, don’t appear to be ideological or particularly “activist.” She strikes me as someone balanced and sensible, with a slight tilt to the left.

You also write, “this does not a mean that Sotomayor is unqualified to be a judge — or less qualified to be a Supreme Court justice than, say, Harriet Miers” - but, c’mon, how can you even compare her to Miers? Miers was truly unqualified. She’s hardly intellectually impressive in any way, to put it mildly, and nothing about her record was impressive or even remotely suggesting she’s qualified to serve as a Justice. She was basically a manager of a law firm, with zero qualifications to serve as a SC justice. By even mentioning her name while discussing Sotomayor, you’re giving the impression there’s an analogy there, where there’s really none. Sotomayor is light-years ahead of Miers. You can’t be serious.

You also make a big issue over Ricci v. DeStefano. Well, I personally would side with the firemen, and it’s unfortunate that Sotomayor hasn’t, but to be fair, she hasn’t even written a decision about that.
We don’t know what her reasoning was. She merely signed, along with the rest of the panel, to uphold the lower court’s decision. It’s hard to build an entire case against her based on something like that. She has written over 150 other decisions, why not focus on them? Why pick one, that doesn’t even have any arguments in it, and make it the central issue, when there are over 150 reasoned decisions to analyze?
Why not review them, and give the public a deeper assessment, rather than focusing on ONE, which doesn’t even have any arguments or reasoning in it?

I’m generally a Cato fan, I get the mailings every day, I’m a moderate libertarian by philosophy, I’m just not sure why Cato is opposing her nomination. I like to think of Cato as non-partisan, just as I am, but on this issue your and Pilon’s opposition/criticism smacks from political partisanship and is not based on the evidence. So it seems to me.

Thanks for reading.

Here is my response:

Thanks for writing and for the thoughtful comments. A few points:

1. My argument is explicitly NOT that her opinions are disagreeable. I’ve waded through a fair number and read every public report on them produced thus far (including the very helpful SCOTUSblog summary you cite). Like you, some I agree with – most, actually, because most cases at this intermediate appellate level are not controversial (legally or politically), even if complex – some I don’t. But there’s just not much “there” there – intellectual depth, scholarly merit, etc. – at least by the elevated standards for elevation to the Supreme Court and in comparison to more accomplished jurists like Wood and Garland. She’s a competent judge, but we have 500 of those in the federal judiciary alone. (And none of this is to disparage her tremendous personal story; I write this from Princeton, where she had a truly impressive four years.)

2. Her reversal rate (I think there are six cases now) is a non-issue. The Supreme Court reverses over 60% of cases it hears and hears fewer than 2% of cases it is asked to review. So, statistically, we can say nothing about Sotomayor in that sense. A couple of her reversals are a bit strange, but on technical issues that, again, don’t lend much to the overall debate.

3. Yes, she’s much more qualified than Miers (though it’s a little unfair to say Miers was a mere “law firm manager” – she was White House counsel and apparently a decent lawyer in private practice).  I threw that line in there to show I can pick on Republican nominees too.

4. While Roger, whom I copy here, has discussed suspicions of Sotomayor’s activism or radicalness – and I think it’s clear she has more of those tendencies than Wood or Kagan – this is not the thrust of the my CNN commentary. We just can’t tell from her opinions, which are all over the map – other than the speeches at Berkely and Duke and then the Ricci case.

5. Ricci is important for two reasons: a) on the merits, the decision is blatant racial discrimination – and the Supreme Court looks likely to overturn Sotomayor’s panel; b) perhaps more importantly, the failure to grapple with the complex constitutional and statutory issues is a serious dereliction of judicial duty – as pointed out by Jose Cabranes in his dissent from denial of en banc rehearing. Regardless of the merits of the case, the way it was handled – as a per curiam summary affirmance released late on a Friday, meant to sweep the case under the rug – is outrageous. Sotomayor was 100% complicit in that.

6. In no way are my (or Roger’s) comments partisan. Cato’s interest here isn’t in any particular personality but rather: 1) that official appointments be made irrespective of racial/ethnic/identity politics, and 2) even more importantly, that the Supreme Court interpret the Constitution in a way that treats the judicial enterprise not as one of enforcing social justice or otherwise rewriting the law it when a result is inconvenient. The talk of “empathy” is disturbing precisely because it is the antithesis of the rule of law. And this is why Republican Judiciary Committee members must generate a public debate on judicial philosophy and not merely attempt to tear down this nominee. If they don’t demand substantive answers on serious constitutional questions, they will be complicit in the deterioration of our confirmation processes.

All the best,
Ilya

I look forward to following and commenting further as the confirmation process plays itself out.

Handicapping the Justicial Horserace

The increase in chatter in Washington about Justice Souter’s replacement is a clear signal  that pundits have gotten about as much mileage as they can over speculation and want to have an actual nominee to dissect.

Even though the administration has been evaluating candidates since the inauguration (and before), there’s no real reason for President Obama to announce a replacement before the Court’s term ends in late June.

The only limiting factor is that the president needs to have a new justice in place by the time the Court resumes hearing cases in October. So, clearly, this politically savvy president will be weighing his legislative priorities against the relative amount of political capital he’ll have to spend to confirm possible nominees. Similarly, Republicans seem to be keeping their powder dry, hopefully in preparation for a serious public debate of competing judicial philosophies and theories of constitutional interpretation.

As far as handicapping goes, the smart money is now on Solicitor General Elena Kagan—because she was recently confirmed by a comfortable margin, has significant support in the conservative legal establishment, and is young (49)—but don’t count out either Judge Diane Wood or Judge Sonia Sotomayor. Or dark horse candidates like Senator Claire McCaskill. It’s really any woman’s ballgame at this point, and will be until Barack Obama—who famously holds his cards close to his vest—announces his pick, on his time.

For a geometric discussion (X-axis = desirable criteria; Y-axis = confirmability) of the above political calculus, see here.

Who Will Replace Justice Souter?

You could call it the end of an error.  David Souter, the “stealth justice” who George H. W. Bush nominated mainly to avoid a confirmation battle and who so disappointed conservatives, is finally free to leave a city he never took to and return to his native New Hampshire. 

Little more can be said about Justice Souter. He has always been inscrutable, at first leaning right, shifting toward the middle in the landmark 1992 cases of Planned Parenthood v. Casey (abortion) and Lee v. Weisman (prayer at high school graduation), and ending up at the left end of the Court alongside Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer – all the while employing an unpredictable jurisprudential method.  And he has always been reclusive, refusing reporters’ and scholars’ interview requests and being the biggest opponent of video cameras inside the Court.  Perhaps most memorably, Souter gained notoriety after his vote in Kelo v. New London (allowing the taking of a private home for the benefit of a developer) spurred property rights activists to petition for the use of eminent domain to turn his farm into the “Lost Liberty Hotel.”

Speculation now turns to possible replacements, and what President Obama will do with his first chance to fill a seat on the high court.  Will he risk a big political battle on this issue so early in his term, or will he appoint someone more confirmable but less pleasing to his base? 

He is under great pressure to appoint a woman, and the three leading female candidates are new Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Second Circuit Judge Sonia Sotomayor, and Seventh Circuit Judge Diane Wood.  Kagan would be an almost-certain pick a year from now, but having been just confirmed to be the so-called Tenth Justice, she might be seen as too green for elevation.  Sotomayor — because she is Hispanic and despite a mixed judicial record — was the odds-on favorite until the Court took up the employment discrimination case of Ricci v. DeStefano (argued just last week), an appeal of a bizarre opinion Sotomayor joined that denied the claims of firefighters who had been passed over for promotion because of their race.  That leaves Wood, a renowned authority on antitrust, international trade, and federal civil procedure, whose age (58) suggests that this is likely the last vacancy for which she will be considered.  Wood offers a seriousness of purpose and no ideological ax to grind, and is thus the best nominee supporters of constitutionalism and the rule of law can hope for at this time.  (Full disclosure: I took two classes from Judge Wood in law school.)