Sonia Sotomayor: Liberal, yet unpredictable…with one exception

July 10, 2013

Sonia Sotomayor(Editor’s note: Over the next nine weeks, we’ll be profiling each of the sitting Supreme Court justices currently on the bench.)

The first post in this series profiled Justice Elena Kagan, the newest justice on the Supreme Court, who has yet to reveal a complete view of any specific judicial philosophy that she may have.

Nonetheless, the subject of this next installment in the series, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, has only an additional year on the Court under her belt; yet, we are still able to get a pretty good idea of her individual judicial views.

First, though, I’ll cover the basics.

Sotomayor was born on June 25, 1954 in the Bronx, a borough of New York City, to working-class parents.  Sotomayor’s father died when she was only nine years old.  It was only after his death that Sotomayor became fluent in English.

Sotomayor’s mother put a very high importance on good education, and this value is reflected in the justice’s academic achievements:

She graduated as valedictorian from both her grammar school and high school, and graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University in 1976.  She graduated from Yale Law School in 1979.

She worked as assistant district attorney in Manhattan from 1979 to 1984 before going into private practice.

In 1992, she was appointed U.S. district court judge in Manhattan by President George H.W. Bush; in 1998, President Bill Clinton appointed her U.S. appeals court judge in Manhattan.

On May 26, 2009, President Barack Obama nominated Sotomayor to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court left by Justice David Souter’s departure.  She was sworn in on August 8, 2009, by Chief Justice John Roberts.

A self-described “Nuyorican” (“New York-Puerto Rican”), Sotomayor is the first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court.

Although she has also described herself politically as an independent centrist, she consistently votes with the liberal wing of the Supreme Court.

However, she does appear to take a more case-by-case approach than other liberals, especially in areas of criminal law.

For example, in February 2012’s Wetzel v. Lambert, Sotomayor broke with the other three liberals to join in the conservative bloc’s majority opinion reinstituting a convict’s death sentence.

In Kawashima v. Holder, Sotomayor once again joined with the conservatives’ majority opinion to find a broader view of a statutory criminal definition, the upshot of which was to deport the convicted individuals back to their native Japan.

Her approach in criminal law cases may likely be influenced by her time as a prosecutor.  However, there are also a number of other criminal law cases that found Sotomayor departing from some of her liberal colleagues in taking the side of the criminal defendant.

Cullen v. Pinholster saw Sotomayor take the opposite approach that she did in Lambert, voting in the minority to uphold the appeals court’s granting of the writ of habeas corpus and to keep the convict’s death sentence vacated.

What’s more, in 2011’s Sossamon v. Texas, Sotomayor dissented from a majority opinion (to which Justice Ginsburg joined) that dismissed a lawsuit by an inmate seeking to use the prison chapel for religious services.  

In Chaidez v. United States, Justice Sotomayor dissented with only Justice Ginsburg from the majority’s ruling that an earlier Supreme Court ruling, requiring defense counsel to advise the defendant about any risk of deportation arising from a guilty plea, did not apply retroactively.  Perry v. New Hampshire and Messerschmidt v. Millender also saw Sotomayor as one of the sole dissenting justices siding with the criminal defendants.

Then again, Sotomayor has joined with the conservative majority in several other non-criminal cases.

In both Hall v. United States and Elgin v. Department of Treasury, Sotomayor joined with the conservatives to rule in favor of the U.S. government (finding tax liability for the taxpayers in Hall and no standing for the government’s opponents in Elgin).

Notably, Sotomayor joined with the conservative majority in Sorrell v. IMS Health Inc. – a corporate free speech case similar to Citizens United.

IMC Health invalidated a Vermont statute that restricted the sale, disclosure, and use of records that revealed the prescribing practices of individual doctors, finding that the law violated the First Amendment rights of the “data mining” corporations who wanted to sell the information to pharmaceutical companies.

On the other hand (once again) Sotomayor has been a small minority in other cases (e.g. in Lozman v. Riviera Beach, in which she was joined only by Justice Kennedy, and Marx v. General Revenue Corp., in which she was joined only by Justice Kagan).

So it seems that Justice Sotomayor, despite certainly having left-leaning tendencies, does seem to approach each case on an individual basis, without any kind of ideological compass directing her to a particular result.

Perhaps with one exception: cases involving Native American rights.

In literally every case involving Native American rights in any form, Sotomayor has always sided with the Natives. In Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band v. Patchak, U.S. v. Jicarilla Apache Nation, Salazar v. Ramah Navajo Chapter, and most recently in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, Sotomayor has taken the side of the Native American parties, even if that meant her being one of the only dissenters, if not the sole dissenter.

Thus, even though Sotomayor can be accurately labeled as “liberal, but unpredictable,” she’s still quite predictable in cases involving Native rights.

It remains to be seen, though, if she becomes more predictable on other individual issues, as well.