Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

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

Sotomayor Waffles on Property Rights

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?

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

Opening Day at Judiciary Park: Sotomayor On Deck

The first day of the Sotomayor hearings yielded many baseball references but little in the way of home runs and strikeouts—or surprises. Democrats lauded Sotomayor’s rags-to-riches story and career achievements. Republicans questioned the “wise Latina’s” commitment to objectivity, whether she would be a “judicial activist” and—most interesting to me—whether she planned to use foreign law in helping her to interpret the Constitution. These would clearly be the lines of attack and counterattack.

It was all “set pieces”—prepared statements that often said more about the senators themselves than about the nominee. The stars of the show were unquestionably Senators Sessions (R-AL), Graham (R-SC), and Franken (D-SNLMN). Sessions, the ranking member, is armed for bear and has clearly been reading the memos my colleagues around town have been writing. Graham marches to his own (very candid) drummer, pronouncing that Sotomayor would be confirmed unless she had a “complete meltdown.” Franken… well he’s just happy to be on the big stage on his sixth day in office.

Assuming Sotomayor is confirmed, however, this will not be that big a political victory for President Obama. With Democrats holding a 60-40 margin in the Senate, confirmation has long been expected, and the political markets have already discounted for it.  The president will likely see a temporary blip of support, particularly among Hispanics, but not as much as one might think—because those who are high on Sotomayor already support Obama.  Moreover, most people will soon forget the Supreme Court and go back to worrying about their personal economic situation—which the president’s policies are certainly not helping.

In a way, this week’s hearings and the confirmation process generally have more downside potential for the administration than upside.  Not because of the small chance Sotomayor won’t get confirmed—which would be a real blow—but because issues such as affirmative action, property rights, gun rights, and the use of foreign law are all being thrust to the forefront of the news cycle.  These issues, and the debate over judicial philosophy generally, are all winners for the Republicans—if they play their cards right.

In any event, tomorrow the real fun begins—with the blue team tossing softballs at the nominee and the red team sending the high heat.

Bob Barr on Drug Reform

President Obama’s new drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, says he wants to banish the idea of a “war on drugs” because the federal government should not be “at war with the people of this country.”

At a Cato policy briefing on Capitol Hill on July 7, former Republican congressman Bob Barr, once a leading drug warrior in the House, explained why carrying out an end to the “war on drugs” will require a bipartisan solution.

Barnett on the Supreme Court Confirmation Hearing

Cato senior fellow Randy Barnett has a piece in the Wall Street Journal on the Senate’s confirmation hearing for Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court.  Excerpt:

Supreme Court confirmation hearings do not have to be about either results or nothing. They could be about clauses, not cases. Instead of asking nominees how they would decide particular cases, ask them to explain what they think the various clauses of the Constitution mean. Does the Second Amendment protect an individual right to arms? What was the original meaning of the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the 14th Amendment? (Hint: It included an individual right to arms.) Does the 14th Amendment “incorporate” the Bill of Rights and, if so, how and why? Does the Ninth Amendment protect judicially enforceable unenumerated rights? Does the Necessary and Proper Clause delegate unlimited discretion to Congress? Where in the text of the Constitution is the so-called Spending Power (by which Congress claims the power to spend tax revenue on anything it wants) and does it have any enforceable limits?

Read the whole thing.

Making Airline Travel as Unpleasant as Possible

The Transportation Safety Administration long has made air travel as unpleasant as possible without obvious regard to the impact on safety.  Thankfully, the TSA recently dropped the inane procedure of asking to see your boarding pass as you passed through the checkpoint – a few feet away from where you entered the security line, at which point you had shown both your boarding pass and ID. 

However, there are proposals afoot in Congress to set new carry-on luggage restrictions, to be enforced by the TSA, even though they would do nothing to enhance security.  An inch either way on the heighth or width of a bag wouldn’t help any terrorists intent on taking over an airplane.  But the proposed restrictions would inconvenience travelers and allow the airlines to fob off on government what should be their own responsibility for setting luggage standards. 

TSA also has restarted ad hoc inspections of boarding passengers.  At least flights as well as passengers are targeted randomly.  After 9/11 the TSA conducted secondary inspections for every flight.  The process suggested that the initial inspections were unreliable, delayed passengers, and led experienced flyers to game the process.  It was critical to try to hit the front of the line while the inspectors were busy bothering someone else.  There was no full-proof system, but I learned that being first or second in line was particularly dangerous.

Finally TSA dropped the practice.  And, as far as I am aware, no planes were hijacked or terrorist acts committed as a result.  But TSA recently restarted the inspections, though on a random basis.

I had to remember my old lessons last week, when I ran into the routine on my return home from a trip during which I addressed students about liberty.  Luckily I was able to get on board, rather than get stuck as TSA personnel pawed through bags already screened at the security check point.

There’s no fool-proof way to ensure security for air travel.  Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to inconvenience passengers while only looking like one is ensuring airline security.