Bench Memos

Today’s New York Times Op-Ed on Judge Sotomayor

The New York Times today has an op-ed by Tom Goldstein about Judge Sotomayor’s decisions involving race.

Mr. Goldstein “conclude[s] that Judge Sotomayor does not allow bias to infect her decision-making.” It’s not a persuasive op-ed.

Let me note at the outset that others, including our own Ed Whelan, have earlier noted some problems with Mr. Goldstein’s methodology. Let me note also that others, including The Washington Post, have counted the cases involved differently than Mr. Goldstein. 

Mr. Goldstein’s discussion in today’s op-ed begins and ends tendentiously, lamenting that “many of us remain incapable of having a conversation about ethnicity that does not devolve into charges of racism,” that “critics have latched onto [Judge Sotomayor’s] decision” in the New Haven firefighters case to “infer … that Judge Sotomayor must be biased against whites”; he calls this “hysteria” and ends with another lament, of “[u]nsubstantiated charges of racism.” It’s ironic that the op-ed, which implicitly calls for a white lab-coat, calm and disinterested review of the facts, should bracket its discussion with such name-calling.

Mr. Goldstein’s discussion of a narrow range of cases also completely ignores the fact that some of the suspicion of Judge Sotomayor, and the fear that she might be influenced by race, ethnicity, and sex in her opinions, is fueled by the fact that, in her talk and writing off the bench, she has said that judges are influenced by race, ethnicity, and sex in their opinions, and seems to think that this is perfectly fine. So it’s not unreasonable for the judge’s critics to be looking especially hard for problems in her decisions.

Nor is it very persuasive to argue, as Mr. Goldstein does, that such fear can be refuted by statistics showing that, in percentage terms, most of Judge Sotomayor’s decisions are not problematic. Suppose the shoe were on the other foot, and a conservative judge had just a couple of decisions that the Left objected to in, say, the abortion area — would that be the end of the matter? The answer, of course, is that it would not — and I’m not hypothesizing here: We know from past experience that is not. Nor should it be: A bad decision in a particularly difficult and sensitive case can reveal a lot about what kind of a justice a judge will be, when her cases will almost all be difficult and sensitive.

On the court of appeals, on the other hand, we would not expect that all or even most decisions would be problematic. No doubt most cases are so clear-cut, one way or the other, that judges on both ends of the spectrum will agree on their disposition. What’s more, saying that a panel is unanimous doesn’t mean that the decision was not problematic (the panel might have been composed of all activists); saying that some of those panels included “a Republican-appointed judge” does not avoid that problem (there are plenty of activist Republican-appointed judges — like, say, Earl Warren and William Brennan, not to mention David Souter and Judge Sotomayor herself, who was, technically, a Republican-appointed district judge).

I have not “reviewed every single race-related case” on which Judge Sotomayor has ruled, but I know of at least three disturbing ones. There’s the New Haven case, of course; and Hayden v. Pataki¸ in which, Mr. Goldstein acknowledges, “she concluded that felon disenfranchisement laws are [racially] discriminatory and violate the Voting Rights Act”; and Brown v. City of Oneonta, which Ed discusses here.

Oh, and by the way: Mr. Goldstein is looking only at decisions in one area. So he’s not considering her decisions on property rights, the Second Amendment, etc., which have also come in for criticism.

In this regard, I should also note that one of the cases that Mr. Goldstein (and the Washington Post, in an article last week) cites as supposedly reassuring involved a policeman who was fired for mailing out racist and anti-Semitic fliers. Judge Sotomayor, in dissent, wanted to rule against the police department — just as the ACLU’s New York affiliate had urged the court to do. So, sure, her position favored a bigoted policeman, but she also wanted to use an aggressive interpretation of the First Amendment to tie the hands of the police department. Thus, this decision is hardly evidence of non-activism, which is the real issue. And in that regard, pace Mr. Goldstein’s op-ed, the fact that Judge Sotomayor doesn’t urge judges “to disregard the plain language of any statute or to invent exceptions to statutes” obviously doesn’t mean that she isn’t doing so.

There is, in sum, plenty for the Senate Judiciary Committee to be concerned about.