"Where Policy Is Made": Sotomayor's Court Comment Explained

"Where Policy Is Made": Sotomayor's Court Comment Explained

The ubiquitous conservative attack on Judge Sonia Sotomayor stems from a statement she made at a conference at Duke University Law School in 2005, in which she described the role appellate justices have in forming policy.

"All of the legal defense funds out there, they are looking for people with court of appeals experience because the court of appeals is where policy is made," she said, laughing a bit through the next part: "And I know this is on tape and I should never say that because we don't make law. I know. Okay, I know. I'm not promoting it. I'm not advocating it. I know."

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The remarks, four years later, have hit the central nerve of the conservative psyche. Figures within and outside the GOP have already announced -- even before Sotomayor was tapped to be Barack Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court -- that they would be painting her as an activist from the bench.

But for legal experts, there is nothing actually controversial to what Sotomayor said. Her political crime, if there were one in this case, was speaking the truth.

"She's not wrong," said Jeffrey Segal, a professor of law at Stony Brook University. "Of course they make policy... You can, on one hand, say Congress makes the law and the court interprets it. But on the other hand the law is not always clear. And in clarifying those laws, the courts make policy."

As Segal noted, one of the most recent cases heard by the Supreme Court -- itself a court of appeals -- involves the strip search of a 13-year-old who school officials believed was carrying ibuprofen. "There is no clear knowing statement whether officials can be sued for that sort of behavior," he noted. "So when justices come up with a decision on that, they would be making policy."

Eric Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University, was equally dismissive of this emerging conservative talking point. "She was saying something which is the absolute judicial equivalent of saying the sun rises each morning. It is not a controversial proposition at all that the overwhelming quantity of law making work in the federal system is done by the court of appeals... It is thoroughly uncontroversial to anyone other than a determined demagogue."

Freedman, who was a classmate of Sotomayor's at Yale Law School, noted that while the Supreme Court will decide roughly 90 cases a year, the court of appeals will weigh in on "many thousands." They are, indeed, "the final stop for the most important decisions in the federal system." They also are the forums where vagaries and gray areas of the law go to be clarified.

"One element of judging, obviously, is issuing precedent," Freedman explained. "But if the thing were squarely disposed of by existing precedent they probably wouldn't go to the court of appeals for it. Their lawyers would say, forget it... So this is where you get clarification for cases without precedent."

"I would be surprised if you got a different opinion from a fair-minded observer in the legal world," he added.

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