Today the Senate Judiciary Committee posted a letter supporting confirmation of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court signed by over 1,100 law professors from around the country. Organized by the Alliance for Justice, and promoted by professors at various schools (including Columbia, which released the letter to the press), the letter makes the standard case for Sotomayor's confirmation:
Judge Sotomayor will bring to the Supreme Court an extraordinary personal story, academic qualifications, remarkable professional accomplishments and much needed ethnic and gender diversity. We are confident that Judge Sotomayor’s intelligence, her character forged by her extraordinary background and experience, and her profound respect for the law and the craft of judging make her an exceptionally well-qualified nominee to the Supreme Court and we urge her speedy confirmation.The letter is pretty standard stuff for this sort of thing. One paragraph in particular caught my eye:
As a federal judge at both the trial and appellate levels, Judge Sotomayor has distinguished herself as a brilliant, careful, fair-minded jurist whose rulings exhibit unfailing adherence to the rule of law. Her opinions reflect careful attention to the facts of each case and a reading of the law that demonstrates fidelity to the text of statutes and the Constitution. She pays close attention to precedent and has proper respect for the role of courts and the other branches of government in our society. She has not been reluctant to protect core constitutional values and has shown a commitment to providing equal justice for all who come before her. (emphasis added)Having now read dozens upon dozens of Sotomayor's opinions and other decisions in which she joined, I think this is a defensible summary of Judge Sotomayor's record on the bench (though reasonable people could also reach a somewhat different conclusion). What I wonder, however, is what percentage of the 1,100-plus signatories to the letter are sufficiently familiar with her record to have reached an informed, expert judgment?
I am sure many academics have spent the last several weeks poring over Sotomayor's work, and that many such folks signed the letter. But I am also quite confident that some of those who signed the letter have not read more than a case or two, and based their judgment on news reports and other second-hand information. For some, I suspect, merely receiving a solicitation from a colleague (or from the AFJ) to support a liberal president's liberal nominee was sufficient.
The whole point of a law professor letter is to establish authoritative support for a particular position. It communicates the message that presumed experts have come to a reasoned, and presumably authoritative, conclusion that non-experts should heed. In this case, the position espoused is not merely that Judge Sotomayor should be confirmed — a view which most law professors almost certainly share — but also that her opinions demonstrate certain, specific characteristics that are desirable as a judge. The underlying claim may be true. Yet I doubt all 1,100-plus signatories took the time to assure themselves of this fact before lending their names, and the authority of their positions, to the letter.
Let me be clear that my concern is not with the substance of the letter. I do not oppose Judge Sotomayor's confirmation and believe that reasonable people could well conclude that her record support's the letter's claims. I assume that many signatories and those who solicited signatures are familiar with Judge Sotomayor's record. I also have little doubt that most all of those on the letter would support Judge Sotomayor's confirmation even after reading every jot of writing she's ever produced. My concern is that some legal academics appear willing to place their political preferences ahead of their academic integrity and would sign such a letter before confirming, for themselves, that everything the letter says is actually true. This is not the first time I've expressed this concern. Unfortunately, I doubt it will be the last.
UPDATE: Jason Mazzone suggests that some enterprising journalist should call random signatories to the letter and ask which Sotomayor opinions demonstrate the traits identified in the letter.