Judge Sotomayor Q&A: Do the character attacks she has been subject to since her nomination have any merit?

Wake Forest University School of Law professors weigh in on the impact Second Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor will have on the U.S. Supreme Court as its newest justice. This is one in a series of faculty discussions regarding current legal topics.

Wake Forest University School of Law professors weigh in on the impact Second Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor will have on the U.S. Supreme Court as its newest justice. This is one in a series of faculty discussions regarding current legal topics.

Despite her strong public record, Judge Sotomayor has been the subject of character attacks from conservative commentators and others in the media and beyond. Do you think these attacks have any merit?

Professor Ron Wright

Ron Wright

Executive Associate Dean for Academic Affairs; Professor of Law

I think some do and some don’t. To the extent that they provoke some real debate about what style of judging, she may have and what role we want the court to play in our public life. That’s a very good thing. I don’t think everyone should say she is a great person and that’s the end of discussion and move on. I think it’s appropriate to have an argument. I think most senators involved have gotten that despite some over-heated comments and over-the-top criticisms about her as a person. I think we saw the same things when it came to Justice Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts during their confirmation hearings. It’s just the way our political system is wired. It is set up for certain people to personalize it and treat it as a game of ‘gotcha.’ It’s not particularly well founded or very good for us as a country. It’s a democratic institution and what we are really after is a democratically responsive legitimate Supreme Court. What we want is a court that reflects the fact that George W. Bush put two judges in office during his eight-year term and that should leave its mark on the U.S. Supreme Court, and Barack Obama’s nominees will reflect the people that put him in office. The court should reflect what the voters wanted. I think it’s an appropriate thing when get judges with different styles and different priorities and who choose different cases because that appropriately reflects our democracy over the long haul.

Professor Suzanne Reynolds

Suzanne Reynolds

Professor of Law

I don’t think the attacks have any merit. She has 17 years experience as a federal court judge. And those 17 years have proved she’s completely mainstream. In fact, she’s probably slightly more conservative on issues of criminal procedure than Justice Souter. So since her record speaks for itself as someone who has, as she said in her confirmation hearing, foremost fidelity to the law, that’s what she’s established in 17 years on the bench. Her record itself does not give her critics anything to attack so then they have to start attacking her for speeches she has made. And these speeches, as Justice Ginsburg has said, all of us have made speeches where we wished we could change a word or two. Her critics have focused on comments like the wise Latina woman comment, when in fact everyone who is a judge brings to the judging experience the wealth of their own individual experience. Tennyson said, “I’m a part of all that I’ve met.” Well of course, all of our experiences judges bring to the bench. To suggest that she’ll make a poor judge because she acknowledges what everyone who is on the bench knows to be true, you bring your own individuality, and then use that as some kind of evidence that she’s really not qualified, is really unfair.

Professor Sid Shapiro

Sid Shapiro

No, I don’t think they have any merit. But what one has to understand about the Supreme Court nomination process is that it is in good part political. That’s just built into the system. The framers decided that the Senate would confirm Supreme Court justices and the Senate is inherently a political body because its made up of Senators who run for re-election and are of different parties. Part of the process is just a kind of campaigning. Senators on both sides, Republicans and Democrats, in part when they approach the process, are speaking not to the nominee, but outside the walls of the Senate to the people of the country and particularly the people of their state. So it’s not surprising that conservatives try to find some angle to speak to their base and to the voters they want to attract and to show them that, “I’m on the case, I’m policing your point of view.” With Justice Sotomayor it’s kind of difficult to do that because her long judicial record pretty much indicates that she’s a centrist. And they really haven’t been able to find anything in her many, many opinions to pick at very successfully. They’ve gone on to make their political points and of course that’s led them to her speech where she suggested a Hispanic woman might have a different point of view. Their criticism probably misinterprets what she meant. Judging from the speech, she meant to indicate that judging at some level involves discretion and there are no exact answers to be found in the law. Judges therefore bring to the bench their past experience. It’s good to have a diverse Supreme Court. It’s good to have people of different backgrounds there and I think it’s true that she will approach these issues somewhat differently than others. Now in order to deny that fact at least some of her critics are pretending that you in fact you can find exact answers in the law and therefore a judge’s role is to go out and find those particular, precise answers and that somehow they exist out there. And if that were true, then a statement like she made that she would approach this differently because of her life experiences would be upsetting, but it’s not true. There are no exact answers out there and judging at some level is party a matter of judgment. And all of us make judgmental decisions based on our experiences and background and so her statement I don’t think was any more than that.