What is Supreme Court Justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor’s record?
President Obama nominated Federal appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court on Tuesday, making her the first Hispanic in history to be elevated to the nation’s highest court.
Sonia Sotomayor, 54, has been a federal judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit since 1998. Judge Sotomayor has a formidable resume: from 1992 to 1998, Sotomayor was a federal judge for the U. S. District Court of New York. Before this, she served as an assistant district attorney for New York County from 1979 to 1984. Sotomayor also worked in private practice for the New York-based law firm Pavia & Harcourt from 1984 to 1992.
Looking at the history of her biggest decisions gives us an idea of what her politics will be like.
As a district judge, Sotomayor defended the First Amendment rights of prisoners when she tossed out a New York state prison rule that banned members of certain religious groups from wearing colored beads, meant to ward off “evil spirits”. Sotomayor also rejected a suburban New York law that would have prevented a congregation from displaying a large menorah in a public park.
In 1995, Sonia Sotomayor made a famous ruling that brought Major League Baseball back from a strike that nearly levelled the sport. According to Sotomayor, this ruling was one of the most important moments of her career. Sotomayor was perfectly positioned to resurrect baseball because of her position on the bench in New York. Sotomayor is known to be a big fan of baseball.
Beyond these landmark cases, Sotomayor has distinguished herself by being a fiery and opinionated presence in any court she worked with. A few of her landmark decisions:
Expanding Constitutional Rights
A memo circulating among Republicans about Judge Sotomayor claims that she is “willing to expand constitutional rights beyond the text of the Constitution.” The memo gives many examples, including her ruling in a case about lawsuits made against federal contractors. The case in question, Makesko v. Correctional Services Corporation, 2000, concerns an inmate who was incarcerated in a fifth floor room at a halfway house while serving time for Federal securities fraud. He was allowed to use the elevator because of a history of congestive heart failure, but when a guard forced him to climb the five flights of stairs instead of using the elevator, the inmate had a heart attack and fell down the stairs. The inmate sued the company that ran the halfway house for the federal Bureau of Prisons due to injuries received during the fall. As part of the appeals court, Judge Sotomayor emphasized legal precedents that seemed to permit suits against companies hired to perform state government functions. The case was then taken to the Supreme Court, where the conservative court reversed Judge Sotomayor’s findings, ruling 5 to 4 that only individual agents, and not entire corporations, may be sued for such violations. Supreme Court Justice Stevens – joined by Justices Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer – dissented in the finding.
Sotomayor had this to say about the case — “Extending [a prior Supreme Court case] to include liability to reach private corporations furthers [its] overriding purpose: providing redress for violations of constitutional rights.”
Abortion will likely be one of the biggest issues during Obama’s presidency. As a member of the Circuit Court, Judge Sotomayor was involved in very few of these controversial issues, and even fewer related to abortion. In one case, she did deny a claim brought by an abortion rights group who were challenging a Bush policy on abortion, one that did not permit foreign organizations who were receive foreign aid from performing or supporting abortions in the United States. Another case involving reproductive rights concerned the definition of the term “refugee,” which includes “victims of coercive family planning practices”. The Second Circuit court ruled that this definition does not include unmarried partners of women forced to abort their pregnancies — men whose girlfriends or lovers were forced into abortions could not be considered refugees. Judge Sotomayor joined on the concurring side, saying it is unnecessary to consider if the definition of this word extended to person’s “legal spouses”, because this particular case dealt with Chinese men and their girlfriends, not their wives.
Judge Sotomayor’s most high-profile case, Ricci v. DeStefano, came within the last year. The case concerned racial discrimination at the workplace — white firefighters in New Haven were allegedly denied promotions after research into the racial makeup of high ranking firefighters found that no black firefighters would be eligible for the same promotion. A three judge panel of the appeals court decided to reject the lawsuit — one of the three judges was Sotomayor. The panel decided that the appeals court wouldn’t hear the case. The Supreme Court is currently considering the discrimination case. Many questions exist in the legal world about Ricci v. DeStefano — one major question in the case is if the law should treat diversity in the work force any different from diversity in the classroom. This issue could have a huge impact in the outcome of the case. In a related decision, Judge Sotomayor dissented from the opinion of her peers in an earlier case involving classroom discrimination. In the case of Gant v. Wallingford Board of Education, Sotomayor found that race discrimination had occurred when a school “unfairly” demoted a black student from first grade to kindergarten. In part, her dissention said that “The school did not give the black student an equal chance to succeed (or fail).”
Workplace Disability Discrimination
Some of Judge Sotomayor’s best known legal opinions concern discrimination against people with disabilities. In the case of Bartlett v. New York State Board of Law Examiners, Judge Sotomayor ruled that a law school graduate who had a diagnosable learning disability and a similar disability related to reeading was legally entitled to extra time to take the bar exams. Sotomayor’s opinion read, in part ““By its very nature, diagnosing a learning disability requires clinical judgment.” After the Supreme Court decided that people who can function “normally by wearing glasses, taking medication, or otherwise compensating for their disability” are not protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Supreme Court told Sotomayor’s appeals court to reconsider their decision in this case. Judge Sotomayor again found that the woman was disabled, and must be given “certain accommodations” — Sotomayor wrote that test scores alone were not enough to diagnose a disability. A similar case involved a trucking company that rejected applicants who were taking certain medications. Judge Sotomayor dissented from the majority opinion of her court, writing that the trucking company (Hunt) had determined the applicants were “substantially limited in the major life activity of working,” and not simply “unsuited for long-distance driving of Hunt’s trucks on irregular stressful schedules.” Sotomayor’s best known opinions are generally dissentions.
Judge Sotomayor has also made important statements related to international law. One famous case involved not just international considerations but child custody law. One case concerned a child of divorced parents who lived in Hong Kong. According to court documents, the mother had sole custody of the child while the father had “reasonable access.” The mother brought the child to New York, and the father filed a petition for the return of the child to Hong Kong. A custody order found that the child could not be removed from Hong Kong without the consent of the father or the Hong Kong court, and the case centered on complex international laws — the main question in the case was whether this custody clause grants “rights of custody” under the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction. If the answer was yes, the mother would be required to return the child to Hong Kong. On appeal, the court ruled the removal was not wrong because the father did not possess these “rights of custody”. Again, Sotomayor dissented. In her opinion, Judge Sotomayor argued that a broader legal interpretation of “custody” showed that “rights of custody” were granted under the Hague Convention, showing legal precedent that this was how foreign courts had considered the issue in the past. The same question in this case, Croll v. Croll, is currently before the Supreme Court in the case known as Abbott v. Abbott.
Another case involving international law was concerned with jurisdiction. Federal courts often hear cases between “citizens of a State and citizens or subjects of a foreign state.” According to British law, citizens of Bermuda are “nationals,” but not “subjects.” A panel found, therefore, that federal jurisdiction did not apply in Bermuda. Judge Sotomayor dissented, writing that the Constitution used “citizen” and “subject” to refer to a range of relationships. In the case The Center for Reproductive Law v. Bush, Sotomayor wrote that “The people of Bermuda would be undoubtedly surprised to learn that they are stateless.”
In a major defeat for environmental groups in the most recent Supreme Court term, the Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency may use cost certain economic calculations to decide whether they will require power plants to make changes to preserve aquatic environments and organisms. The case centered around the meaning of a phrase in the Clean Water Act that requires power plant’s cooling structures to “reflect the best technology available for minimizing adverse environmental impact.” This wording exists in a legal grey area — and Judge Sotomayor had previously ruled that weighing the costs of the changes against the value of aquatic life in terms of dollars was not permitted by the law. Instead, the EPA could consider only what costs were reasonable for the power plants. her ruling in the case, Riverkeeper v. Environmental Protection Agency, was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court. Sotomayor’s opinion included this statement: “Congress has already specified the relationship between cost and benefits in requiring that the technology designated by the EPA be the best available.”
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