29 May 2009

Empathy Above Impartiality Equals Judicial Activism

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Kenneth Vogel, at the Politico, notes that Sonia Sotomayor is burdened by a prominent record of hostility toward First Amendment campaign speech rights.

Sonia Sotomayor may not have a long paper trail on hot button social issues, but in one area of the law—campaign finance—she has staked a position that could have far-reaching political consequences.

The clarity of her support for limits on campaign fundraising and her background as a pioneering campaign regulator is raising eyebrows among election law experts who say her record is more substantial and explicit than that of any Supreme Court nominee since the dawn of the modern, post-Watergate campaign finance regime.

“There hasn’t been one with as vigorously expressed policy views on campaign finance as this one that I am aware of, and I’ve been pretty aware for a number of years,” said James Bopp, a leading conservative attorney who has won four Supreme Court cases challenging campaign finance regulations.

“I can’t think of anybody who has had such a track record,” said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies and a follower of battles on the issue since the early 1970s. “There are clearly going to be cases coming before the court that will be challenges to the law, and there will be some very important cases.”

Sotomayor brings hands-on experience to the issue from her four years of experience on the New York City Campaign Finance Board, an independent, nonpartisan city agency created in 1988. One of the first members appointed to the board by then-Mayor Ed Koch, Sotomayor helped implement—enthusiastically, according to her cohorts—one of the most comprehensive campaign finance laws in the country.

In a rare and little-noticed law review article, she forcefully defended the policy motivations behind such restrictions, questioning the line between campaign contributions and “bribes,” calling on Congress to overhaul campaign finance laws – including suggesting public financing of its own elections – and blasting the Federal Election Commission for not enforcing existing laws.

“The continued failure to do this has greatly damaged public trust in officials and exacerbated the public’s sense that no higher morality is in place by which public officials measure their conduct,” she wrote in a law review article based on a speech she gave to Suffolk University Law School in 1996, when she was a federal district court judge.

On the only occasion when she was confronted with the issue as a jurist, Sotomayor joined a decision that effectively gave a pass to a Vermont law that severely limited campaign contributions and capped campaign spending – a law that the Supreme Court later overturned as a First Amendment violation.


The same James Bopp, Jr. mentioned in passing in Politico, who practices law in Terre Haute, Indiana with the firm of Bopp, Coleson & Bostrom, yesterday in the Election-Law listserv, discussed Sotomayor’s 1996 law review article and found her philosophy disturbing.

In 1996, the Suffolk University Law Review published Returning Majesty to the Law and Politics: A Modern Approach, by Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. This article touches on her legal philosophy in general, as well as her understanding of the First Amendment in particular. The views expressed in this article are troubling, and should give all Americans pause.

Judge Sotomayor writes, “The law … is uncertain and responds to changing circumstances.” It is true that some development in the law takes place as new circumstances arise. For instance, courts today are working out the contours of ‘cyber-law’—a concept that was unheard of a mere thirty years ago. With the proliferation of personal computers and the Internet, however, cyber-law is now a rapidly developing body of law. Some of the old rules regarding the formation of contracts have had to be re-considered to take into account e-transactions. And laws regulating what can, and cannot, be posted on the Internet have had to be evaluated in light of First Amendment protections.

To say that the law develops as new situations arise, however, is far different than what Sotomayor is saying. She calls it a “public myth” that law can be stable, or provide predictable results. Instead, she suggests that the law is in such a constant state of flux that one can never be sure what the law is, or what one’s rights or obligations under it are. What we have, she writes, is an “unpredictable system of justice.” And she believes this “continually evolving legal structure” which leads to what she calls “the uncertainty of law” is a good thing for society.

This is a wrong understanding of the role and function of law in our society. Law is not to be uncertain and arbitrary. Rather, it is to provide rules that all must live by, and guidance whereby we can structure our lives. Sotomayor’s position, though, is that such certainty is a bad thing, and uncertainty in the law is the desired result.

This philosophy opens the door for Sotomayor, and judges who believe similarly, to avoid following what the law actually says. It allows them to place “empathy” above impartiality. After all, if the law is uncertain and constantly changing, why shouldn’t a judge rule in favor of the party that she likes best or agrees with most? Sotomayor’s philosophy facilitates the type of judicial activism and legislation from the bench that decides cases according to what the judges personally believe should be the correct result, instead of what the law actually says should be the correct result. It also destroys any confidence Americans might have in the law’s fairness, if judges are free to make rulings which go against what the law says in order to benefit parties they like or agree with.

Perhaps nowhere is Judge Sotomayor’s problematic philosophy better illustrated than in her approach to campaign finance law. In Returning Majesty to Law and Politics, she compares restrictions on the fundamental First Amendment right of citizens to engage in political speech and association by making contributions to candidates, with restrictions on gift-giving to politicians. Because gift-giving can be restricted, she seems to say, contributions should be restricted, too. She suggests that both gifts and contributions can function as bribes, and seems to be open to the elimination of what she terms “private money” from politics.

The problem with that reasoning, of course, is that there is a difference of constitutional magnitude between buying lunch for a bureaucrat and making of a political contribution to a candidate. The Founders thought that the right of Americans to engage in political speech and association was so important that they enshrined it in the First Amendment to the Constitution and the First Amendment protect campaign contributions.

Our Constitution, including the First Amendment, should not be regarded as evolving. Rather, it should be understood as a constant guarantee: It is a contract between the previous generation of Americans and this one, and between this generation of Americans and the next one. It assures us, and each succeeding generation of Americans, of the nature of the Republic and our rights within it. And so, our freedom to engage in political speech and association guaranteed by the First Amendment—including our right to make contributions to the candidates whose message we agree with—should be absolute. It should not be subject to the whim of a judge who believes that the law is uncertain and constantly evolving.

Judge Sotomayor, however, appears to disagree. While her thoughts regarding campaign contributions are difficult to discern from her law review article, they are more clear in a decision she signed onto in 2005. This case, known as Randall v. Sorrell when it was before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, involved a challenge to Vermont’s contribution and expenditure limits. A three-judge panel of the Second Circuit upheld the district court’s decision that the contribution limits were constitutional, but determined that the case should be remanded to the district court for reconsideration of the expenditure limits. The plaintiffs in that case asked for the full Second Circuit to rehear the case, and the Second Circuit denied that rehearing. (The plaintiffs would eventually win in 2006 at the Supreme Court when, in Randall v. Sorrell, the Court held that both the contribution and expenditure limits were unconstitutional).

Judge Sotomayor signed onto an opinion written by two other judges which concurred in the decision to deny rehearing. This opinion which she signed began by noting that the question before the Court involving whether the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights were being trampled was not important enough to justify rehearing the case. Instead, the judges noted that disputes which are highly political or partisan should not be addressed by the courts.

There’s just one little problem with that: If the Court will not vindicate our First Amendment rights, who will? Judge Sotomayor is correct when she observes that campaign finance is partisan and politicized. Incumbents frequently enact campaign finance laws in order to protect themselves, and if they can do so in a way that benefits their political party, so much the better. Far from providing that the courts be reluctant to involve themselves in such matters, the Founders envisioned a vigorous role for the courts in upholding First Amendment freedoms.

A judge who sees the law as constantly changing and evolving, however, feels more free to refuse to vindicate Americans’ rights when she personally does not think that Americans should have them. So, since Sotomayor is of the opinion that severe restrictions (or, even the elimination) on private money in politics is acceptable, she did not feel the need to consider the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights in Randall.

Such a judicial philosophy is troubling. It places all Americans’ rights at risk. Judge Sotomayor should be questioned on this extensively, and should not be confirmed if this is really her view.


Hat tip to Daniel Lowenstein.


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