Lauren Collins has a long and interesting profile of Justice Sonia Sotomayor in the January 11 New Yorker. It’s full of heartwarming stories about her hard‐working parents, her dedication to education, her warmth to friends and law clerks, and so on. Though it does include this vignette that seems to corroborate controversial claims that she was “a bully on the bench”:
In early December, during oral arguments for United Student Aid Funds Inc. v. Espinosa, Sotomayor cut off a lawyer as he attempted to answer a question posed by Justice Ginsburg. “Counsel, may I interrupt for just one moment, because I—there is something needling at me that I do need an answer to,” Sotomayor said. According to Law.com, which reported on the incident in a story headlined “Sotomayor Collides with Ginsburg During Questioning,” Justice Stephen Breyer turned to Sotomayor as though to intervene. Before he could, Ginsburg shot back, “And I’d like him to answer the question that I asked him first.”
But what really struck me in the article, and what appears to be new reporting, was this discussion of the explicitly racial politics that led up to her nomination. Maybe I’m just naive, and certainly I wasn’t under the impression that race, religion, gender, and other such factors are absent in the selection of our nine most trusted judges. But this really seems like the way you put together a balanced ticket in a political campaign, not the way you choose a wise justice:
Latino leaders began laying the groundwork for a Sotomayor nomination almost as soon as President Obama was elected. During the Administrations of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Latino groups had repeatedly failed to coalesce around a candidate. This time, they were determined to wield their influence as a bloc. In January, Nydia Velázquez, the Democratic congresswoman from New York’s Twelfth District, was sworn in as the head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. She asked Sotomayor, a longtime friend, to come to Washington to administer the oath—and to insure that she was fresh in the mind of every Hispanic member of Congress.
At a Cinco de Mayo party at the White House, Velázquez and Serrano, who is of Puerto Rican descent, each buttonholed Obama.
“Mr. President, she’s a very qualified person, and it would be a historic nomination,” Serrano said.
Velázquez gripped Obama by both hands. “Mr. President, you have an opportunity, here in your hands, to shape the United States Supreme Court for years to come.”
Obama whispered into Velázquez’s ear and smiled. “I know—there’s a Puerto Rican woman.”
Justice David Souter announced his resignation on May 1st. Not long afterward, the Hispanic Caucus convened to formally endorse a candidate. The meeting was long and contentious. The Mexican‐Americans did not have a superior candidate. The Puerto Ricans did not have the numbers. After hours of debate, Ed Pastor, a Mexican‐American congressman from Arizona, made a motion: “The best candidate is Sonia Sotomayor, and we should take a vote right here.” The meeting ended with a unanimous vote for Sotomayor.
Latino leaders also lobbied their black counterparts to the cause. “The concern of some people, and I believe some in the White House, was with what political capital they could use in nominating a Latina in terms of the black community, who feel that Clarence Thomas doesn’t represent them,” Velázquez said. On the House floor, Velázquez approached the North Carolina representative Mel Watt, who serves on the House Judiciary Committee, and who formerly chaired the Congressional Black Caucus. A few days later, Watt called Velázquez on a Saturday. “Nydia, I placed a call to the White House,” he said. “I said, ‘If there’s not a black candidate that makes the short list, we will be supportive of Sonia Sotomayor.’ ”
I guess Sotomayor knows the score better than I do. After her confirmation she said (to Collins, presumably, as this quotation is not otherwise in Nexis):
“Although we all wish to believe that appointments are only the product of merit, the harsh reality is that the support of community groups is critical to insuring that meritorious candidates are not overlooked or victimized in the appointment process,” she said.
Politics ain’t beanbag, but I’d like to think that nominations of judges are just a little more elevated than porkbarrel politics and the scramble for a piece of the pie.
Today is the first Monday in October, and so is First Monday, the traditional start of the Supreme Court term. The Court already heard one argument — in the Citizens United campaign finance case — but it had been carried over from last year, so it doesn’t really count.
In any event, continuing its trend from last term, the Court has further front‐loaded its caseload — with nearly 60 arguments on its docket already. Fortunately, unlike last year, we’ll see many blockbuster cases, including:
- the application of the Second Amendment to state gun regulations;
- First Amendment challenges to national park monuments and a statute criminalizing the depiction of animal cruelty;
- an Eighth Amendment challenge to life sentences for juveniles; a potential revisiting of Miranda rights;
- federalism concerns over legislation regarding the civil commitment of “sexually dangerous” persons;
- a separation‐of‐powers dispute concerning the agency enforcing Sarbanes‐Oxley;
- judicial takings of beachfront property; and
- notably in these times of increasing government control over the economy, the “reasonableness” of mutual fund managers’ compensation.
Cato has filed amicus briefs in many of these cases, so I will be paying extra‐close attention.
Perhaps more importantly, we also have a new justice — and, as Justice White often said, a new justice makes a new Court. While Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation was never in any serious doubt, she faced strong criticism on issues ranging from property rights and the use of foreign law in constitutional interpretation to the Ricci firefighters case and the “wise Latina” speeches that led people to question her commitment to judicial objectivity. Only time will tell what kind of justice Sotomayor will be now that she is unfettered from higher court precedent — and the first term is not necessarily indicative.
Key questions for the new Court’s dynamics are whether Sotomayor will challenge Justice Scalia intellectually and whether she will antagonize Justice Kennedy and thus push him to the right. We’ve already seen her make waves at the Citizens United reargument — questioning the scope of corporations’ constitutional rights — so it could be that she will decline to follow Justice Alito’s example and jump right into the Court’s rhetorical battles.
In short, it’s the first day of school and I’m excited.
The judiciary committee’s vote to endorse Sonia Sotomayor is not surprising. None of the Democrats are from red states and so have little to fear from voters, while the quixotic Lindsey Graham—in what can only be described as a triumph of hope over experience—was the only Republican to have set aside legitimate qualms and voted for the “wise Latina.” But voting on a Supreme Court nomination is more than a matter of deciding whether a nominee is “qualified”—even if Sonia Sotomayor had been a leading light of the judiciary rather than just the best available Hispanic woman—or deferring to the president. Instead, Senator Dick Durbin had it right when he said during John Roberts’s confirmation hearings that “no one has a right to sit on the Supreme Court” and that the “burden of proof for a Supreme Court justice is on the nominee.”
Given Sotomayor’s repeated rejection of the idea that law is or should be objective or discernible from written text, her inability in oral and written testimony to even state a position on important cases and legal doctrine beyond an acceptance of precedent—by which she would no longer be bound in her new role—leaves me with an abiding concern about the damage she could do to the rule of law in this country. I am similarly hard‐pressed to accept hearing‐seat conversions that contradict over 15 years of speeches and articles: most notably on the idea that judges’ ethnic backgrounds—and even “physiological differences”—should affect their rulings and on using foreign law to inform constitutional interpretation. Because of her evasion, obfuscation, and doubletalk, I like Sotomayor less now than when she was first nominated.
And so, in following the “burden of proof” paradigm and also respecting the logic of Senator Arlen Specter, who curiously evoked Scottish law at President Clinton’s impeachment trial to vote “not proven,” I would vote that the case for confirming Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court is “not proven”—under American law.
Having sat through the entire gavel‐to‐gavel coverage of last week’s confirmation hearings, I still don’t know if I would vote to confirm Sonia Sotomayor if I were a senator, I really don’t. Deciding how to vote on this is more than a simple matter of deciding whether she is “qualified” to sit on the Supreme Court—which is hard enough given there is no fixed qualification standard.
It also has to include how much deference you want to give the president, in general terms but also taking into account that Sotomayor will likely be confirmed and you want to position yourself politically for the next nominee. And it has to include, of course, how your constituents feel; while it’s cowardly to follow opinion polls blindly, you are accountable to those who sent you to Washington. There are many other considerations, both political and legal.
But I’m not a senator—or even a senator’s aide—so I don’t have to make that decision. As a constitutional lawyer, however, I can say that—even as most of Sotomayor’s opinions are uncontroversial—it is impossible to overlook the short thrift the judge gave to the judicial process in Ricci v. DeStefano and Didden v. Port Chester. I am similarly hard‐pressed to accept hearing‐seat conversions that contradict over 15 years of speeches and articles: most notably against the idea that judges’ ethnic backgrounds—and even “physiological differences”—should affect their rulings.
Given Sotomayor’s repeated past rejection of the idea that law is or should be objective, stable, or discernible from written text, her inability during her testimony to explain her judicial philosophy—or even state her position on important cases and issues beyond an acceptance of precedent (by which she would no longer be bound in her new role)—leaves me with an abiding concern about the damage she could do to the rule of law in this country. Because of the nominee’s evasion, obfuscation, and doubletalk, I like her less now than I did before the hearings.
And so, on second thought, I do know how I would vote. During John Roberts’s confirmation hearings, Sen. Dick Durbin said that “no one has a right to sit on the Supreme Court” and that the “burden of proof for a Supreme Court justice is on the nominee.” I will follow this very apt “burden of proof” paradigm and respect the logic of Sen. Arlen Specter, the Republican‐turned‐Democrat former judiciary committee chairman who at President Clinton’s impeachment trial curiously evoked Scottish law to vote “not proven.” Given the impropriety of citing foreign law (another issue on which the nominee failed to explain her “conversion” in hearing testimony), I would vote that the case for confirming Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court is “not proven”—under American law.
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.
The hearing began after lunch with Senator Grassley probing Sotomayor’s views on Kelo v. New London and the Fifth Amendment’s protection of property right—one of the questions I would ask her. The nominee apparently thought the senator (who’s not a lawyer) needed a lesson in what went on in Kelo and how the Court ruled. Grassley, having been briefed by counsel, didn’t seem to care for that, pushing Sotomayor on whether she thought Kelo was correctly decided and how she views constitutional property rights generally.
Sotomayor said Kelo was a judgment of the Court that she accepts, but that any future case she would have to judge on its own merits. Well, of course, but that wasn’t the question on the table. Exasperated, Grassley asked Sotomayor whether a taking with no compensation would be constitutional. The “wise Latina” couldn’t formulate a proper response, smiling and explaining that what constitutes a “taking” is subject to legal analysis. Well, yes, but that still doesn’t answer the question. Finally, Sotomayor concluded that if a taking violated the Constitution, she would have to strike it down.
In short, according to Sotomayor, if something is unconstitutional, a judge can’t allow it. The technical term we lawyers use for this kind of sophisticated reasoning is “circular”—with the judge here getting to decide based on no discernible criteria whether something is constitutional. For more on the outrageous takings Judge Sotomayor has allowed, see George Mason law professor Ilya Somin’s analysis of the Didden v. Port Chester case. (Somin, also a Cato adjunct scholar, will be testifying at the hearings later this week.)
Update: Sotomayor and “Secret Law”
Sotomayor didn’t have much to say in response to Senator Feingold’s inquiries regarding national security law and civil liberties post‑9/11, but the Wisconsin lawmaker’s questions about “secret law”—on which he didn’t press the nominee’s non-answers—made me think of the following: Both Ricci (the infamous firefighters race discrimination case) and Didden were “unpublished” summary dispositions.
If Sotomayor had not been nominated to the Supreme Court, causing hundreds if not thousands of lawyers to comb through her judicial opinions, would anyone have uncovered these blatant attempts to sweep controversial legal issues under the rug? Are Ricci and Didden Sotomayor’s secret law?
Nothing has changed in the six short weeks since Sonia Sotomayor was nominated to the Supreme Court: she remains a symbol of the racial politics she embraces. While we celebrate her story and professional achievements, we must realize that she — an average federal judge with a passel of unimpressive decisions — would not even be part of the conversation if she weren’t a Hispanic woman.
As Americans increasingly call for the abolition of affirmative action, Sotomayor supports racial preferences. As poll after poll shows that Americans demand that judges apply the law as written, the “wise Latina” denies that this is ever an objective exercise and urges judges to view cases through ethnic and gender lenses.
At next week’s hearings, Sotomayor will have to answer substantively for these and other controversial views — and for outrageous rulings on employment discrimination, property rights, and the Second Amendment. To earn confirmation, she must satisfy the American people that, despite her speeches and writings, she plans to be a judge, not a post‐modern ethnic activist. After all, a jurisprudence of empathy is the antithesis of the rule of law.