Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

Justice Sotomayor Celebrates San Francisco’s New District Attorney Chesa Boudin

Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., November 30, 2018. (Jim Young/Reuters)

I’ll leave it to others to debate the merits of San Francisco’s new district attorney Chesa Boudin, who (according to this San Franciso Examiner article) won election in the face of “intense opposition” from the city’s police union and political establishment and who has plans “to immediately begin reforming the criminal justice system.” I am very surprised, though, to learn that Justice Sotomayor somehow saw fit to send Boudin a video of ardent congratulations at his swearing-in yesterday.

In her video, Sotomayor tells Boudin that she is sending “this message to tell you how much I admire you” and that “you too [i.e., like Sotomayor herself, as the context makes clear] are an example that gives hope to so many.” (Sotomayor highlights here that Boudin, the son of Weather Underground criminals Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert—and the adoptive son of their Weather Underground cohorts Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn—“spent his childhood visiting parents incarcerated for committing serious felonies.”)

Sotomayor praises Boudin’s “strength of character and moral composure” and declares:

Your personal strength and commitment to reforming and improving the criminal justice system is a testament to the person you are and the role model you will continue to be for so many.

Sotomayor calls Boudin “a great beacon to many” and expresses her belief that “the city of San Francisco will be so very well served by a man whose life creed is believing, as you told me, ‘We are all safer when we uplift victims, hold everyone accountable for their actions, and do so with empathy and compassion.’”

Perhaps I’m mistaken, but it strikes me as highly unusual that a sitting Supreme Court justice—or any federal judge, for that matter—would publicly lavish such praise on an elected official, especially in the absence of a previous working relationship or close friendship that would give her a special basis for offering insights into his character. In fact, the only similar example that comes readily to mind is the troublingly partisan public cheerleading that Sotomayor, then on the Second Circuit, engaged in over the election of President Obama. But if anyone thinks I’m overlooking other examples, please let me know. (Statements at retirement ceremonies would seem to be readily distinguishable, but I’d still be interested in them.)

I also don’t think the fact that Boudin’s position is legal or prosecutorial rather than purely political makes Sotomayor’s embrace of him okay. But if you’re inclined to disagree, consider a hypothetical in which, say, Justice Alito showered comparable public praise on a prosecutor who won election by promising to be tough on crime.

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