Court Decision Escalates Sotomayor Battle

Posted June 29, 2009 at 8:44pm

The Supreme Court’s decision Monday in a controversial affirmative action case officially joined the battle between Republicans and Democrats over the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the high court — sparking a debate about whether the ruling is a rebuke of her judicial philosophy.Lawmakers staked out markedly different positions, with Republicans arguing the decision was a rebuke of judicial activism while Democrats claimed it as proof that Sotomayor was using restraint in making the ruling.Republicans and conservative activists sought to tie the Supreme Court’s rejection of a 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals decision involving the discrimination of white firefighters — which Sotomayor took part in issuing in New York — to her work with a Puerto Rican civil rights group and her rulings on gun rights to prove that the appeals court judge uses political considerations in ruling from the bench.“Not only did Judge Sotomayor misapply the law, but the perfunctory way in which she and her panel dismissed the firefighters’ meritorious claims of unfair treatment is particularly troubling. It stands in marked contrast to the way the Supreme Court addressed this very serious matter, underscoring my concern that she may have allowed her personal or political agenda to cloud her judgment and affect her ruling,— Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Monday.Likewise, during a conference call with conservatives Monday evening, Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.) argued the ruling indicates Sotomayor is a judicial activist who has “consistently advanced a narrow view of the Second Amendment and done so frankly with little explanation or reasoning.—Thune also charged that her opinions about the Second Amendment and the affirmative action case indicate a “disturbing trend … a record of avoiding or casually dismissing difficult constitutional issues— in order to pursue her own political beliefs.Democrats, armed with talking points distributed to them from the White House, quickly countered that charge, arguing that Sotomayor had demonstrated a “moderate— judicial temperament because the overturned ruling was subject to precedent.In a conference call with reporters, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) — a member of the Judiciary Committee — argued the Supreme Court’s ruling in Ricci v. DeStefano should not be seen as a rebuke of Sotomayor’s judicial temperament, but rather an indication that she is a moderate jurist who was simply following precedent.Schumer argued that while Republicans have warned “she will be an activist judge, this case clearly shows she won’t. She’ll be a moderate … her whole career on the 2nd Circuit is one of modesty,— Schumer argued.The Supreme Court overturned the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision upholding the New Haven, Conn., fire department’s decision not to promote white firefighters out of concern that a promotion test was biased.Since precedent in the 2nd Circuit existed for the lower court to rule against the white firefighters, Democrats have argued that Sotomayor was simply following the rule of law and that precedent.Schumer and others maintain those are the exact qualities that Republicans have called for and have sought to make the decision an affirmation of her qualifications rather than a mark against her.The White House made that argument in talking points, which were circulated Monday morning.”The Supreme Court today set forth a brand new interpretation of Title VII employment discrimination law adopting, as the four dissenters noted, a “new legal rule.— This in no way suggests that the Second Circuit panel decision was wrong — the Second Circuit was bound by the precedent that existed at the time and the Supreme Court exercised its unique prerogative to change the direction of the law,— the memo said. Democrats and the White House also argued that Justice David Souter, whom Sotomayor would be replacing, dissented in Monday’s opinion and sided with Sotomayor’s panel — meaning that her presence on the court would not tip the balance on rulings similar to Ricci. “Importantly, Justice David Souter agreed with the Second Circuit’s decision in Ricci. Critics of Judge Sotomayor have been making a big deal out of nothing: her vote would not have swung the balance and it is unsurprising that an Obama nominee would agree with Justice Souter, and not Justices [Antonin] Scalia and [Clarence] Thomas,— the White House talking points said.Meanwhile, the Supreme Court also delayed a decision on Monday involving the Federal Election Commission and Citizens United. Nearly two years ago, Citizens United sought permission to release and promote a motion picture during the 30-day blackout periods imposed on outside groups ahead of primary elections. The parties will re-argue the campaign finance case before the high court on Sept. 9.Matthew Murray contributed to this report.