13 Jul 2009

Sotomayor’s Ricci Gambit

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Stuart Taylor Jr. thinks that Sonia Sotomayor and her liberal colleagues made a deliberate effort to spike the Ricci case. He’s probably right.

(B)ut for a chance discovery by a fourth member of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, the now-triumphant 18 firefighters (17 white and one Hispanic) might well have seen their case, Ricci v. DeStefano, disappear into obscurity, with no triumph, no national publicity and no Supreme Court review.

The reason is that by electing on Feb. 15, 2008, to dispose of the case by a cursory, unsigned summary order, Judges Sotomayor, Rosemary Pooler and Robert Sack avoided circulating the decision in a way likely to bring it to the attention of other 2nd Circuit judges, including the six who later voted to rehear the case.

And if the Ricci case — which ended up producing one of the Supreme Court’s most important race decisions in many years — had not come to the attention of those six judges, it would have been an unlikely candidate for Supreme Court review. The justices almost never review summary orders, which represent the unanimous judgment of three appellate judges that the case in question presents no important issues.

The 2nd Circuit and other appeals courts hear cases in three-judge panels, which almost always write full opinions in all significant cases. Those opinions, which are binding precedents, are routinely circulated to all other judges on the circuit, in part so that they can decide whether to request what is called a rehearing en banc by the entire appeals court.

Not so summary orders. They do not become binding precedents, and in the 2nd Circuit they are not routinely circulated to the judges except in regular e-mails containing only case names and docket numbers. Those e-mails routinely go unread, on the assumption that all significant cases are disposed of by full opinions, according to people familiar with 2nd Circuit practice. …

(A)ny 2nd Circuit judge who had chanced to find and read the panel’s summary order in Ricci would have found only the vaguest indication what the case was about.

Read the whole thing.

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