I am not yet sure what position to take on President Obama's selection of Sonia Sotomayor. My general sense is that she is very liberal, and thus likely to take what I consider to be mistaken positions on many major constitutional law issues. I am also not favorably impressed with her notorious statement that "a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." Not only is it objectionable in and of itself, it also suggests that Sotomayor is a committed believer in the identity politics school of left-wing thought. Worse, it implies that she believes that it is legitimate for judges to base decisions in part on their ethnic or racial origins. Stuart Taylor's comments on Sotomayor's speech are telling:
Any prominent white male would be instantly and properly banished from polite society as a racist and a sexist for making an analogous claim of ethnic and gender superiority or inferiority.
Imagine the reaction if someone had unearthed in 2005 a speech in which then-Judge Samuel Alito had asserted, for example: "I would hope that a white male with the richness of his traditional American values would reach a better conclusion than a Latina woman who hasn't lived that life" — and had proceeded to speak of "inherent physiological or cultural differences."
Of course it is inevitable that personal background will influence judicial decisionmaking to some degree. Sotomayor is right to imply that it often had a negative effect on the decisions of white male judges in the past. But there is a difference between recognizing an inevitable source of bias while striving to constrain it and actually embracing it. I much prefer a jurist who strives to get beyond his or her ethnicity in making decisions than one who rejects the view that "judges must transcend their personal sympathies and prejudices and aspire to achieve a greater degree of fairness and integrity based on the reason of law" and instead believes that we should embrace the fact that "our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging."
On the plus side, Sotomayor does meet the minimal professional qualifications for nomination to the Supreme Court. Her ten years of solid service on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ensures that. At the same time, her record is far less impressive than that of most other recent nominees, such as Roberts, Alito, Breyer, and Ginsburg. Each of these was a far more prominent and better-respected jurist than Sotomayor, and Breyer and Ginsburg were leaders in the development of their respective fields of law. Sotomayor also seems far less impressive than Diane Wood and Elena Kagan, reputedly her top rivals for this nomination. The current nominee's qualifications are likely better than Harriet Miers' were; but Miers' nomination failed in large part because of her relatively weak resume. Among the current justices, probably only David Souter and Clarence Thomas had professional qualifications similar to or worse than Sotomayor's. That said, Supreme Court appointments are almost never purely merit based. Sotomayor joins a long line of nominees who were chosen in part because of political, ethnic, or gender considerations. It would probably be wrong to oppose her on that ground alone.
Finally, this may be a good time to remind readers that I have long argued that judicial philosophy and ideology are legitimate considerations for senators to take account of in deciding whether or not to oppose a Supreme Court nominee. Unlike some on the right, I took that view during the Bush Administration, and I hold the same position today. On that point, I agree with Barack Obama, who opposed John Roberts' nomination based on his judicial philosophy despite conceding that "[t]here is absolutely no doubt in my mind Judge Roberts is qualified to sit on the highest court in the land. Moreover, he seems to have the comportment and the temperament that makes for a good judge." Obama was, in my view, wrong in his specific objections to Roberts, but absolutely right in concluding that judicial philosophy should be considered in addition to professional qualifications when assessing judicial nominees.
UPDATE: Some commenters understandably question whether Sotomayor's credentials are really worse than Alito's were. Both of them spent comparable amounts of time as judges on a circuit court, and both had similar educational credentials at elite institutions. In addition, this post by Eric Posner (relying on methodology developed in this article by Stephen Choi and Mitu Gulati), shows that Alito's opinions and Sotomayor's have similar citation counts.
Nonetheless, I think that Alito's record is on the whole better than Sotomayor's was. In their composite ranking of federal circuit court judges (incorporating measures of quantity of output, quality, and "independence"), Choi and Gulati ranked Alito 16th out of 98 judges included in the study. Sotomayor was not included for technical reasons, but Eric reports that she would have ranked in "the bottom half." Eric cites data showing that Sotomayor's opinions are cited slightly more frequently than Alito's in court decisions and law reviews. But that difference is almost surely due to the fact that Second Circuit opinions are generally cited more frequently than Third Circuit ones (in large part because the Second Circuit includes New York City, which is the nation's most important center for commercial litigation and many types of white collar criminal litigation). I also base my view in part on a qualitative judgement. For years prior to his appointment, I often heard legal scholars and other experts describe Alito as one of the top conservative circuit court judges. Prior to her appointment, I rarely if ever heard Sotomayor described as one of the top liberal ones.
I may have been wrong in suggesting that Alito's preappointment record was "far" more impressive than Sotomayor's. But I still do think that he had a significant edge. That said, I reiterate my view that Sotomayor's credentials are good enough that she should not be rejected on qualifications grounds. The real objection to her is based on judicial philosophy.
UPDATE #2: It should be noted that Sotomayor put "I would hope that" immediately prior to her statement that a "wise Latina" judge would generally make better decisions than a white male one. I don't think that the "I would hope" materially changes anything in a context where it's pretty clear that she thinks that the hope is justified. After all, the statement comes in a paragraph criticizing Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's reputed view that "a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases." Sotomayor's comment would not be a meaningful criticism of O'Connor's unless Sotomayor thought that the wise Latina judge really was likely to do better than a white male "more often than not."
UPDATE #3: In a more recent post (published several days after this one), Eric Posner presents new data showing that Sotomayor's recent record stacks up well against Alito's by various quantitative measures. I won't go into the details here, but on balance I think that Eric's conclusion is correct. Therefore, it can no longer be said that the quantitative data show that Alito had a "substantial edge" over Sotomayor. As I stated in the original post, my reservations about Sotomayor are primarily focused on her judicial philosophy and decisions rather than on competence. Even so, it's important to recognize that new evidence reveals that my original judgment that her record was less impressive than Alito's was probably wrong.
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