Just weeks after President Obama announced the nomination of Judge Sonya Sotamayor for the soon to be vacant seat on the Supreme Court, news organizations begin to tear through her records and pick apart statements made by the Appellate Court Judge. Of the comments being made, many of those from the Republican side of the aisle have unearthed a groundswell of unease at Sotamayor’s record in dealing with race-related issues. Much contention has come from a quote by Sotamayor, often taken out of context, stating that she “would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life”. Many have taken this statement, which was meant to describe the ways in which Judge’s approach questions of discrimination, as a sign that Sotyamayor would be unfairly biased against non-minorities, with some like Newt Gingrich in the Republican Party calling Sotamayor a racist.
In the heat of this debate over race and politics, there has been relatively little attention paid to the cases that she has decided on. One of the most notable cases relating to employment and race is one that has been touched upon in this blog earlier, Ricci v. Desteffano. In this case, a promotion exam given to New Haven Connecticut firefighters was thrown out because it resulted in no minority applicants being promoted. The white firefighters who would have qualified for promotions sued, and the case now sits in the Supreme Court. As an Appeals Court Judge, Sotamayor agreed with the lower courts finding that to accept the results would have violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which provides for equal treatment before the law. Now in the Supreme Court where Sotamayor hopes to ascend, the case has drawn much attention for the cries of “so called” reverse racism and the difficulty faced in applying the Civil Rights Act.
Again, many on the right have taken her deicision in the lower courts of Ricci v. Desteffano as a sign that she would use her own personal experience to influence her decisions in race related cases. However, a Washington Post article takes a more exhaustive look at her bench record, and finds just the opposite. Tom Goldstein, quoted in the article states that “Of the 96 cases, Judge Sotomayor and the panel rejected the claim of discrimination roughly 78 times and agreed with the claim of discrimination 10 times. The remaining 8 involved other kinds of claims or dispositions. Of the 10 cases favoring claims of discrimination, 9 were unanimous”. In this light, however we see that Sotamayor isn’t as prone to use her minority background as a reason to rubber stamp any discrimination cases that come before her.
On the issue of disability discrimination, Sotomayor has decided on two prominent cases. The first case involves a law student who had learning and reading disabilities. The student had asked for an accomodation while taking the Bar exam, where Sotamayor had ruled for the student stating that she had a genuine disability. She stated that while she may have had excellent test scores and succeeded in the face of her disability, she was entitled to accomodation unlike other applications of the ADA where individuals who can correct there disability are not always accomodated. In another ruling, Sotomayor found for a group of truck drivers who said they had been unfairly discriminated against since they were required to take prescription medication. Sotomayor claims that these workers were “substantially limited in the major life activity of working”, more than just simply unable to drive trucks as the lower courts had found.
These rulings paint an interesting portrait of Sotomayor and her dealings with employment related issues, many of which she will likely rule on if she ascends to the Supreme Court. In particular, the Ricci v. DeSteffano case will be interesting to watch if she sits on the bench based on her prior involvement and ruling on the it.