Few Quotable Quotes in Sotomayor Opinions; Was Ambition the Reason?

Posted May 27, 2009, 08:42 am CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor is known for elaborately detailed opinions—with a couple curious exceptions.

In two hot-button cases involving gun rights and firefighters charging reverse discrimination, the New York-based appeals judge joined in short unsigned opinions, Politico reports.

In one of the cases now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, a three-judge panel of the New York City-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that included Sotomayor issued a “remarkably cursory” unsigned opinion, the New York Times reports in a story highlighting one of the two opinions. Only one paragraph was devoted to reasoning.

In another unsigned opinion, Sotomayor joined with a panel that rejected a Second Amendment challenge to a New York law prohibiting the possession of a martial arts weapon, nunchuks, Politico says. The panel said the U.S. Supreme Court had not made clear in District of Columbia v. Heller whether the individual right to bear arms applied to the states.

Sotomayor’s other opinions, on the other hand, are more detailed, the Times says. They are “marked by diligence, depth and unflashy competence. If they are not always a pleasure to read, they are usually models of modern judicial craftsmanship, which prizes careful attention to the facts in the record and a methodical application of layers of legal principles,” according to the newspaper.

“But they reveal no larger vision, seldom appeal to history and consistently avoid quotable language. Judge Sotomayor’s decisions are, instead, almost always technical, incremental and exhaustive, considering all of the relevant precedents and supporting even completely uncontroversial propositions with elaborate footnotes.”

The Rev. Barry Lynn told Politico he has had trouble learning about Sotomayor’s stance on church-state issues by reading her opinions. He questioned whether the elusiveness is intentional.

“You have to think about your public record and the public trail if you’re going to move up in the judiciary,” he told Politico. “And I think she’s savvy enough to have done so. It is a self-preservation pattern.” He added: “In this contentious era of every nomination becoming a political campaign I can understand why someone would choose to do that.”

The Associated Press has published excerpts from rulings and dissents by Sotomayor, including a ruling that says the government can withhold public funds as a way to favor the anti-abortion position. In a dissent, Sotomayor took a First Amendment position in a police firing case, the Times adds. Sotomayor argued a police officer’s alleged anonymous racist comments were hateful and insulting, but he should be allowed to pursue a suit claiming his firing was unconstitutional.