The New Republic’s Legal Affairs editor Jeffrey Rosen is today urging Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation, and claims that “conservatives are misreading” him on Sotomayor, but back on May 4 Rosen wrote the following paragraphs as part of an article titled “The Case Against Sotomayor.”
[D]espite the praise from some of her former clerks, and warm words from some of her Second Circuit colleagues, there are also many reservations about Sotomayor. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been talking to a range of people who have worked with her, nearly all of them former law clerks for other judges on the Second Circuit or former federal prosecutors in New York. Most are Democrats and all of them want President Obama to appoint a judicial star of the highest intellectual caliber who has the potential to change the direction of the court. Nearly all of them acknowledged that Sotomayor is a presumptive front-runner, but nearly none of them raved about her. They expressed questions about her temperament, her judicial craftsmanship, and most of all, her ability to provide an intellectual counterweight to the conservative justices, as well as a clear liberal alternative.
The most consistent concern was that Sotomayor, although an able lawyer, was “not that smart and kind of a bully on the bench,” as one former Second Circuit clerk for another judge put it. “She has an inflated opinion of herself, and is domineering during oral arguments, but her questions aren’t penetrating and don’t get to the heart of the issue.” (During one argument, an elderly judicial colleague is said to have leaned over and said, “Will you please stop talking and let them talk?”) Second Circuit judge Jose Cabranes, who would later become her colleague, put this point more charitably in a 1995 interview with The New York Times: “She is not intimidated or overwhelmed by the eminence or power or prestige of any party, or indeed of the media.”
Her opinions, although competent, are viewed by former prosecutors as not especially clean or tight, and sometimes miss the forest for the trees. It’s customary, for example, for Second Circuit judges to circulate their draft opinions to invite a robust exchange of views. Sotomayor, several former clerks complained, rankled her colleagues by sending long memos that didn’t distinguish between substantive and trivial points, with petty editing suggestions—fixing typos and the like—rather than focusing on the core analytical issues.
Some former clerks and prosecutors expressed concerns about her command of technical legal details: In 2001, for example, a conservative colleague, Ralph Winter, included an unusual footnote in a case suggesting that an earlier opinion by Sotomayor might have inadvertently misstated the law in a way that misled litigants. The most controversial case in which Sotomayor participated is Ricci v. DeStefano, the explosive case involving affirmative action in the New Haven fire department, which is now being reviewed by the Supreme Court. A panel including Sotomayor ruled against the firefighters in a perfunctory unpublished opinion. This provoked Judge Cabranes, a fellow Clinton appointee, to object to the panel’s opinion that contained “no reference whatsoever to the constitutional issues at the core of this case.” (The extent of Sotomayor’s involvement in the opinion itself is not publicly known.)
Not all the former clerks for other judges I talked to were skeptical about Sotomayor. “I know the word on the street is that she’s not the brainiest of people, but I didn’t have that experience,” said one former clerk for another judge. “She’s an incredibly impressive person, she’s not shy or apologetic about who she is, and that’s great.” This supporter praised Sotomayor for not being a wilting violet. “She commands attention, she’s clearly in charge, she speaks her mind, she’s funny, she’s voluble, and she has ownership over the role in a very positive way,” she said. “She’s a fine Second Circuit judge—maybe not the smartest ever, but how often are Supreme Court nominees the smartest ever?
By May 8, Rosen was regretting his earlier title, and trying to qualify his own position. But he still took the occasion to publish excerpts from Sotomayor’s entry in the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary, which includes rating of judges based on reviews of attorneys appearing before them.
Usually lawyers provide fairly positive comments. That’s what makes the discussion of Sotomayor’s temperament so striking. Here it is:
Sotomayor can be tough on lawyers, according to those interviewed. “She is a terror on the bench.” “She is very outspoken.” “She can be difficult.” “She is temperamental and excitable. She seems angry.” “She is overly aggressive—not very judicial. She does not have a very good temperament.” “She abuses lawyers.” “She really lacks judicial temperament. She behaves in an out of control manner. She makes inappropriate outbursts.” “She is nasty to lawyers. She doesn’t understand their role in the system—as adversaries who have to argue one side or the other. She will attack lawyers for making an argument she does not like.”
Not all of Sotomayor’s lawyers’ evaluations in other areas were this negative. As the Almanac puts it “most of lawyers interviewed said Sotomayor has good legal ability,” and “lawyers said Sotomayor is very active and well-prepared at oral argument.”
You can get an idea of what Sonia Sotomayor is like from this 2:10 video excerpt from what seems to be a panel discussion of legal career options at Duke University Law School in 2005. We will be seeing her in the clip, indicating with derision her contempt for the notion of judicial restraint, a good deal in the near future.