President Obama Nominates Sonia Sotomayor for Supreme Court

Sonia Sotomayor President Obama today announced (CNN story and video) his nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, currently a Judge on the Second Circuit, to fill the position on the US Supreme Court to be vacated by the resignation of Justice David Souter.

Within a few hours of President Obama‘s announcement, the CATO Institute and The Heritage Foundation had significant articles devoted to attacking the nomination. Rush Limbaugh this afternoon called Judge Sotomayor a “racist”. Sean Hannity called her a “radical” who had made “outrageous” and “amazing” statements. The liberal sites raced out articles attacking the attackers and defending Judge Sotomayor (Talking Points Memo and The Huffington Post).

The first item that has been circulating about Judge Sotomayor is a statement she made about appellate courts making “policy” during a panel discussion at Duke University in 2005 (note: this clip is lengthier, and provides much more context, than the clips played on most news sites):

This statement is being used to characterize Sotomayor as an “activist” judge who doesn’t recognize that judges “interpret” (but do not “create”) law. Personally, I think that argument is nonsense. Judges all the time analyze statutory and constitutional issues by considering the impact in the real world of their potential decisions. Those are “policy” considerations. For example:

  • If an employee has to file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC within 300 days of the “unlawful employment practice”, does that mean 300 days of the negative performance review that results in lower pay for the employee, or within 300 days of each pay check the employee receives pursuant to the negative performance review? That was the issue in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, 550 U.S. 618, 128 S. Ct. 2162 (2007).The Supreme Court in Ledbetter made a number of policy-based arguments in favor of its limitation rule, including discussion of a “policy of repose” which makes it “unfair” for the wronged party not to put the employer on notice of a claim within a specific period of time. See my discussion in this blog of the decision.
  • If employment discrimination law prohibits retaliation against an employee who opposes discriminatory conduct, what is the level of severity of the employer’s action that is necessary for the courts to recognize a retaliation claim? That was the issue in Burlington Northern & Sante Fe Railway Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006).  The Supreme Court examined a broad range of policy considerations that focused on the burdens on employers of various possible rulings, and whether employee complaints would be encouraged or discouraged by possible rulings. See my discussion in this blog on the decision.

There is simply no bright (or muddy) line between “law” and “policy”, and judges routinely formulate the most appropriate rule of law by examining how the various options are consistent with or promote various policy considerations.

By the time a case gets to the level of a court of appeals, the judges are frequently presented with competing policy considerations which the parties will argue undergird a proposed interpretation of a statute or a constitutional provision. For example, in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, 550 U.S. 618, 128 S. Ct. 2162 (2007), the Supreme Court had to interpret a provision of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which dealt with when a person has to file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. Within 300 days of a discriminatory performance review in (for example) 2001 which suppressed a woman’s pay checks compared to her male peers, or within 300 days of a discriminatory pay check she received in 2008 as a consequence of that performance review? It would be intellectually dishonest to suggest that the answer was crystal clear from the language of the statute. So the Courts, routinely, examine the policy consideration behind the statute in question. In Ledbetter, here is an incomplete list of the competing policy considerations that were relevant to the Court’s decision, and all of these policies are unarguably reflected in the statute (Title VII) and relevant legal principles:

  • The policy that Title VII should provide a remedy to the employee for discriminatory decisions by employers.
  • The policy that Title VII should act as a deterrent to prevent future discrimination by employers.
  • The policy that claims should be presented with reasonable promptness to give defendants fair notice of the claims.
  • The policy that claims should be presented with reasonable promptness because claims can be adjudicated more competently before witnesses, memories, documents, or other evidence fade or disappear.

The Supreme Court in Ledbetter focused on the policies relating to prompt presentation of claims, and ruled that Ledbetter was required to file her charge with the EEOC within 300 days of the discriminatory performance review. The dissent in Ledbetter focused on the remedial and preventive policies in Title VII. Congress then overruled the Ledbetter decision and concluded that the Supreme Court had misinterpreted the relevant provisions in and policies of Title VII. The Supreme court, in its decision, by any reasonable definition, “made policy” in the result it reached. So did Congress.

Stay tuned, and I’ll discuss the Sotomayor nomination in coming days and weeks.

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Drew M. Capuder

Publisher of Drew Capuder's Employment Law Blog. Lawyer with more than 29 years experience, focusing on employment law, commercial litigation, and mediation. Extensive trial and appellate experience in state and federal courts. Call Drew at 304-333-5261
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