Tag: supreme court nominee

Filibuster Obama Nominees? I’m Shocked!

At Politico Arena today, Clinton’s acting U.S. Solicitor General Walter Dellinger worries that after yesterday’s vote in Massachusetts, Obama’s Supreme Court nominees may be subject to Republican filibusters.

My response:

Walter, my good friend, where were you all during the Bush ‘43 years? I recall seeing you often in town, when you weren’t teaching down in Durham.  But if I may judge from your Arena concern today that Republican senators, after the late unpleasantry in Massachusetts, may now filibuster an Obama Supreme Court nominee, you must have missed the unprecedented and repeated Democratic filibusters of Bush appellate court nominees over several of those years.  Did you forget that after the Democrats took control of the Senate in May 2001, following Jim Jeffords becoming an Independent, eight of Bush’s first eleven May 2001 appellate court nominees had not had so much as a Judiciary Committee hearing as we were coming down to the 2002 elections?  And after the Democrats lost control of the Senate in those elections, when they could no longer stall by refusing to hold hearings, they moved to the filibuster – over no fewer than ten nominees.  Did you forget that our good friend, the eminently qualified Miguel Estrada, one of Bush’s May 2001 nominees, finally withdrew his name from consideration in September 2003, after 28 months in limbo and six failed cloture votes?

To be sure, those were appellate court nominees, but the principle is the same – and Bush’s Supreme Court nominees escaped a filibuster, let me remind you, only after the “gang of 14” finally reached a compromise, failing which the “nuclear option” would have brought an end to the unprecedented Democratic filibuster of Bush’s nominees.  (I ignore the 1968 Abe Fortas case, which had special circumstances.)

If Republicans were to filibuster an Obama nominee, therefore, instructions for doing so would be readily at hand.  I’m not suggesting they do so, however.  The filibuster is, as you know, an extra-constitutional procedure, with something of a checkered history.  For better or worse, it has served as an additional check on the passions of the lower chamber, but its use for executive nominations, as distinct from legislation, raises difficult separation-of-powers questions, which are your main concern, I’m sure.

Scott Brown and the Future Supreme Court Vacancy

Josh Blackman and Lyle Denniston offer some thoughts on the effect of Scott Brown’s Massachusetts earthquake on the looming retirement of – and the nomination of a replacement for – Justice John Paul Stevens.  Josh and Lyle both latch onto the idea that Brown’s providing the 41st vote to sustain a potential Republican filibuster could cause President Obama to nominate someone more moderate than would be the case if the Democrats had maintained their super-majority.  Lyle goes on to speculate that both Obama and Senate Democrats, looking to this fall’s election, will generally want to tack right in the face of an emboldened GOP and impatient electorate.

I think this sort of analysis is a misapplication of otherwise correct political analysis to the sui generis event that is a Supreme Court nomination.  Yes, Scott Brown’s presence in the Kennedy people’s seat will change the dynamic of the health care debate, definitively kill cap and trade, otherwise alter the Democrats’ legislative agenda – and even affect lower court nominees.  But I’m not so sure it will affect Obama’s calculus in picking a new Supreme Court justice.

Here’s why:  Despite having been a constitutional law professor – whom I did not have when I was in law school, though I passed him in the halls a few times – the president has not really tried to advance his ideological agenda in the courts.  It’s bizarre, really, that judicial nominations have not at all been a priority for this administration given that few people pay attention to lower court appointments and this could have been a place where the president could have thrown some bones to his base at little political cost (and certainly far less cost than the rest of his domestic agenda).

Moreover, based on the Sotomayor nomination, we see that when it comes to the Supreme Court, Obama is much more about affirmative action than appointing either the best-qualified Democrats or the most ”progressive” ones (or both, to provide a counterweight to Justice Scalia).  (Note that Sotomayor at the time of her nomination was nowhere near the best or most left-wing member of the federal judiciary.)  Even with a filibuster-proof Senate majority, we would have been unlikely to see a Cass Sunstein or Harold Koh pick – though each took not insignificant heat and delay in being confirmed to regulatory czar and head State Department lawyer, respectively.  (And Larry Tribe is too old.)

With Sonia Sotomayor, Obama hit the “twofer” of a woman and a Hispanic (the first unless you count Benjamin Cardozo).  With the Stevens replacement, women and minorities are still slightly preferred but the key “diversity” quota to fill is “non-judge” – and, per the above, a non-controversial one on whom the president won’t have to spend much political capital.

And so, while the prohibitive favorite – solicitor general Elana Kagan (and a woman) – is no surprise, you heard it here first that the other likely nominees, in no particular order, are Janet Napolitano (DHS secretary, woman), Deval Patrick (Massachusetts governor, black), Jennifer Granholm (Michigan governor, woman), Kathleen Sullivan (former Stanford dean, lesbian), Amy Klobuchar (senator, woman), and Akhil Amar (Yale law professor, South Asian).  I’ll comment on their relative merits in future posts, but nobody on that list is both a radical and an intellectual heavyweight, and the list has not changed with Scott Brown’s election (though the indirect spotlight during the campaign on Gov. Patrick’s unpopularity might have hurt his chances).

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

Update on the Sotomayor Hearings

After yesterday’s bloviating—much reduced by Joe Biden’s departure from the committee—today we’ve gotten into some good stuff. Sotomayor is obviously well-prepared. She speaks in measured, dulcet tones, showing little emotion.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Leahy gave her the opportunity to explain herself on Ricci and on the “wise Latina” comment—which she has repeated in public speeches at least six times going back 15 years—and then built up the nominee’s background as a prosecutor and trial judge. Ranking Member Sessions and Senator Hatch (himself a former chairman of the committee) pounded Sotomayor on Ricci, asking her how she reconciles a race-based decision with clear Supreme Court precedent—and how her panel decided the case in two paragraphs despite the weighty statutory and constitutional questions.

Sessions in particular pointed out the inconsistency between her statement yesterday that she was guided by “fidelity to the law” and her history of calling the appellate courts as being the place where “policy is made” and profession of inability to find an objective approach of the law divorced from a judge’s ethnicity or gender. Sotomayor’s responses were not convincing; rather than agreeing with Justice O’Connor’s statement that a wise old man and a wise old woman would come out the same way on the law, the “wise Latina” comment plainly means the exact opposite.

And so the back-and-forth continues. One refreshing thing I will note is that only twice has the nominee said she can’t answer a question or elaborate on a response: on abortion, saying Griswold, Roe, and Casey are settled law; and on guns, declining to discuss whether the constitutional right to bear arms can be used to strike down state (as opposed to federal) laws. The former is a clear—but not unexpected—cop-out because, unlike a lower court judge, the Supreme Court justice revisits the nature and scope of rights all the time. The latter is actually the correct response in light of the three cert petitions pending before the Court in the latest round of Second Amendment litigation. Still, her discussion of the Second Amendment left much to be desired given her ruling in Maloney; as Jillian Bandes pointed out recently, you can’t discuss incorporation without a solid understanding of Presser.

CP Townhall

More on Sotomayor

Cato adjunct scholars on Judge Sotomayor:

Today’s Wall Street Journal reports that Sotomayor’s record on criminal justice issues put her to the right of David Souter.  Good grief — that would mean that for Sotomayer just about all the barriers on state power come tumbling down: structural safeguards like enumerated powers, non-delegation, separation of powers and the limits pertaining to police and prosecutorial powers.

For more background, go here and here.

Haywood v. Drown

The Supreme Court ruling in Haywood v. Drown got lost in the news last week, but it was an important constitutional case involving the principle of federalism.  The issue concerned the  extent to which the central government can commandeer state judicial systems.  Unfortunately, by a narrow 5-4 vote, the Court gave the central government a green light.

Justice Clarence Thomas filed  another one of his sober, scholarly opinions in dissent and I think he makes the case rather well.  Excerpt:

The Court holds that New York Correction Law Annotated §24, which divests New York’s state courts of subject-matter jurisdiction over suits seeking money damages from correction officers, violates the Supremacy Clause ofthe Constitution, Art. VI, cl. 2, because it requires the dismissal of federal actions brought in state court under42 U. S. C. §1983. I disagree. Because neither the Constitution nor our precedent requires New York to open its courts to §1983 federal actions, I respectfully dissent.

Although the majority decides this case on the basis of the Supremacy Clause, see ante, at 5–13, the proper starting point is Article III of the Constitution. Article III, §1, provides that “[t]he judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” The history of the drafting and ratification of this Article establishes that it leaves untouched the States’ plenary authority to decide whether their local courts will have subject-matter jurisdiction over federal causes of action.

Until this setback, the Court’s conservatives were doing well in this corner of the law.  In New York v. United States (1992), the Court ruled that state legislatures were not subject to federal direction.  In Printz v. United States (1997), the Court ruled that state executive officers were not subject to federal direction.  This case stood for the proposition that state courts are not subject to federal direction.  Alas, Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the liberals to subordinate the states to federal control.

Here’s a practical example to illustrate the problem.  It’s bad enough when Congress wants to pass a law like the Americans with Disabilities Act (pdf)–a law that will create a flood of litigation.  But what if Congress goes a step further and writes the law in such as way as to say ”take all those time-consuming lawsuits to the state courts. Federal judges and personnel can’t be bothered with that stuff!”  So state courts get clogged or state lawmakers must raise taxes to alleviate the added burden, which blurs accountability.  That’s what is likely to happen. Or, to be precise, continue to happen with increasing frequency.  The feds have permission to foist costs on to the states.

But, to be clear, the main issue here is the proper division of federal and state authority.  Even if Congress were to get around the problem of unfunded mandates by throwing money at the states, each state should retain control over its judiciary.  As Justice Thomas notes, the issue of federal supremacy is too often distorted by liberals.  Within its proper sphere, the feds are supreme.  Liberals want supremacy and federal authority that is plenary.  Wrong.  Obama’s Supreme Court nominee should be asked about federalism and the doctrine of enumerated powers at the confirmation hearings.