Bench Memos

Partisan Neutral-Speak from Newspaper Editorials on Sotomayor

Today’s house editorial in the Hartford Courant, bearing the screeching title “A Shameful Vote on Supreme Court Nominee,” contends that “it’s a disgrace that [Judge Sotomayor] received the favorable vote of only one” committee Republican and laments that “a once-statesmanlike senator such as Orrin Hatch” has supposedly “joined the partisan bushwhackers.”  The vote of many Republicans against Sotomayor is, it ridiculously claims, “more than a slap in the face to Hispanics.  It’s one more blow to the idea that people of differing views and ideologies can, when it counts, work together for the common good.”

The opening passages of the Courant’s editorial would have readers believe that the paper took much the same position on Justice Alito’s confirmation, which was supported by zero committee Democrats and only four Democrats in the entire Senate.  It is true that the Courant opined that Alito should be confirmed.  But its January 29, 2006, editorial (not available online, so far as I can tell) is far meeker in tone, as its weak title—“Judge Alito Passes Muster”—suggests.  Although that editorial stated that the “sharp partisanship reflects the tenor of the times,” it does not call the Democrats’ vote a “disgrace” or a blow against the very idea of the “common good,” and it does not condemn Democrats as “partisan bushwhackers,” nor does it contain any comparable rhetoric.

There would seem to be a broader pattern here.  The Los Angeles Times, in an editorial that went only so far as to oppose a filibuster of the Alito nomination, proclaimed it “understandable” that Alito “may not win many Democratic votes.”  But it now lauds Senator Lindsey Graham as a “profile in statesmanship” for his committee vote for Sotomayor, contends that his vote “shames his colleagues” who were supposedly just “voting their party affiliation and political philosophy” and—yes, the confusion gets even worse—should have “owned up to believing … that the Supreme Court is just another political body and that the only consideration in confirmation is whether the nominee will hew to an ideological line.”

Similarly, newspapers that found Alito’s judicial philosophy disqualifying now seem to regard judicial philosophy as irrelevant.*  The New York Times declares that senators should support Sotomayor “because she is eminently qualified.”  But it supported the Democrats’ filibuster of Alito because of its (confused) view that Alito “holds extreme views about the expansive powers of the presidency.”  The Boston Globe’s editorial (“Confirm Sotomayor”) says that Sotomayor should be confirmed because she “has the right temperament, intellect, and credentials for the Supreme Court.”  But its anti-Alito editorial (“Not Fit for the Court”) relies heavily on its cartoonish misunderstanding of “his overarching constitutional philosophy.”

* Update/clarification:  A more sympathetic reading of these papers is that they regard judicial philosophy as relevant when it is, in their partisan judgment, “out of the mainstream.”