Sotomayor’s First Term

Roberts Barnes of the Washington Post reviews Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s first term on the Supreme Court.  The unsurprising finding is that she has been a reliably liberal justice in ideologically divided cases and, contrary to some expectations, her experience as a prosecutor has not made her noticeably more sympathetic to the government in criminal law cases.  Some excerpts:

She has sided with the liberal wing of the court on issues in which ideology appeared to play a role in the outcome, such as gun rights, religious symbols on public land and life sentences without parole for juveniles in non-homicide cases.”The first thing to say is that there haven’t been many surprises,” said John Oldham McGinnis, a law professor at Northwestern University. “She appears to be a typical member of the liberal wing.” He remarked that experts have said members don’t come into their own until serving five years or so. David H. Souter, the justice whom Sotomayor replaced, had been nominated by President George H.W. Bush, and during his first year on the court, he seemed to fit comfortably in its conservative wing. He ended up being a reliable liberal vote.

But McGinnis said Sotomayor has a longer track record as a judge than did Souter, and he sees no reason to believe that her ideology will change. . . .

Pamela Harris, executive director of Georgetown Law Center’s Supreme Court Institute, said she found Sotomayor’s most compelling writing in a dissent. In a case testing the famous Miranda rule, Sotomayor objected to the court’s 5 to 4 decision, which shifted to suspects the burden of invoking the right to remain silent.

At the time of Sotomayor’s nomination by President Obama, some had speculated that her former job as a prosecutor might make her less sympathetic to criminal defendants. But she criticized the court’s conservative majority for a “substantial retreat from the protection against compelled self-incrimination.”

“I think she’ll play an important role in these kinds of cases in the future,” Harris said.

Barnes also quotes Justice John Paul Stevens’ assessment of Justice Sotomayor:

“She is not only a really nice, gracious person, she hasn’t wasted any time at all in going to work and doing her work thoroughly and carefully as a lawyer should,” [Justice John Paul] Stevens said in a recent interview, playing down the idea that he serves as an adviser. “If somebody’s qualified for this job, they’re qualified the day they’re sworn in. She’s definitely qualified.”

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