Sotomayor's Baseball Ruling: Conservatives Go To Bat

It was destined to come to this.

The initial salvos in the Supreme Court confirmation battle for Sonia Sotomayor are being played out on fairly traditional lines. But after the president introduced his pick for the Supreme Court vacancy by praising her work in "saving baseball" following the 1994 strike, conservatives are trotting out some new ammunition: not just that this claim is greatly exaggerated but that it exposes all that is wrong in Obama's judicial philosophy.

We're hearing (from the president of the United States) that Sotomayor "saved baseball." That's nonsense. In 1995, Judge Sotomayor ruled on an NLRB petition seeking an injunction against the Major League Baseball owners' lockout of the players. As I noted at the time, the court hearing the matter would be making a straightforward ruling on labor law, and the owners were plainly in the wrong legally in claiming an impasse in December when there were negotiations going on later in March. Any judge randomly assigned to the case would have made the same ruling. Indeed, a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit, in an opinion by conservative Judge Ralph Winter, unanimously upheld Sotomayor's grant of the injunction.

To say that the judge in the case saved baseball (or expressed sympathy for highly paid baseball players, as Kathryn snarks below) is making the very mistake that separates conservative viewpoints on the role of the judiciary from Obama's view of the judiciary as activist. A judge acts as an umpire, making the calls of balls and strikes. Neither the judge nor the umpire is supposed to decide that one party is more sympathetic than the other and deserves the benefit of the ruling.

Putting aside whether Obama's view of what happened resembles that of someone who firmly believes in an active judiciary, the record seems pretty clear that Sotomayor's ruling did, in fact, get major league baseball operating once more. Whether or not someone else would have made the same decision is debatable. But a Democratic strategist sent over a few clips from that time period that not only praise Sotomayor's work but also note that she was able to accomplish what a federal mediator and White House could not.

New York Times, 8/12/04: "Ten years ago today the players stopped playing, beginning a strike they would end 233 days later after a federal judge issued an injunction that prevented the owners from unilaterally establishing new work rules in the absence of a new collective bargaining agreement. With her ruling, Judge Sonia Sotomayor accomplished what a federal mediator, Bill Usery Jr., and the White House had failed to do as the strike progressed. The Clinton administration asked Usery to become involved in the talks, and after he had been unable to budge the two sides, the White House summoned negotiators to Washington just before Christmas. In thinking that the White House could induce a settlement, President Clinton's advisers were evidently as naive as Ravitch initially was."

Roger Abrams, Legal Base, Page 175: "The surprising hero in this battle of the 1990s was not a player, an owner, or a union official. In April 1995, federal district court judge Sonia Sotomayor, at the behest of the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, stepped up to the plate to enforce the national labor law principle of good father bargaining. Sotomayor bats ninth on our Baseball Law All-Star Team. For now, she has had the final say."

New York Times, 4/1/95: "In her two-and-a-half years on the bench, U.S. District Judge Sonia Sotomayor has earned a reputation as a sharp, outspoken and fearless jurist, someone who does not let powerful interests bully, rush or cow her into a decision. She lived up to that billing Friday morning, when the fate of major league baseball was thrust into her hands. After a two-hour hearing in which she grilled both sides on the fine points of labor law, she took only 15 minutes to issue an injunction that could break the deadlock in the baseball strike. Ruling from the bench, Sotomayor chided baseball owners, saying they had no right to unilaterally eliminate the 20-year-old system of free agents and salary arbitration while bargaining continues...'She's tough and tenacious as well as smart,' said Justice Jose Cabranes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, a mentor and former professor of Sotomayor at Yale Law School. 'She is not intimidated or overwhelmed by the eminence or power or prestige of any party, or indeed of the media.'"

Claude Lewis column (originally in Philadelphia Inquirer), 4/6/95: "Sonia Sotomayor, the federal judge whose injunction seems to have saved the season, now is as much a part of baseball lore as Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron and Mike Schmidt."

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