Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor offered the first public defense on Tuesday of her decision to dismiss a reverse-discrimination case involving white firefighters in New Haven, Conn. She told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that the appeals court judges’ hands were tied by existing law.
“The issue was not what we would do or not do,” she said. “When you are on a circuit [appeals] court, you are obligated to follow a circuit’s precedent.”
Ms. Sotomayor was one of three appeals court judges who agreed with a trial judge that the white firefighters’ case should be thrown out of court. That decision was overturned by the nation’s highest court in a 5-to-4 opinion issued two weeks ago.
The case was controversial because it involved the hot-button issue of the use of race as a criterion in government employment decisions. It was also controversial because the Sotomayor appeals court panel initially dismissed the case by issuing an unsigned one-paragraph summary order. Such action is usually reserved for routine, unimportant decisions.
Sotomayor said there was no need for the appeals court panel to prepare its own detailed analysis of the New Haven case. She said the panel relied on the “very thorough” 78-page decision of the federal judge in New Haven.
Some analysts have suggested the firefighter case might occupy center stage at Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, given the hearings’ proximity to the high court decision.
But Sotomayor firmly defended her actions in the case Tuesday. Senators did not seem eager to spar with her over the legal twists and turns of the complicated and racially charged litigation.
Sotomayor said the lower court judge and her appeals court panel simply applied existing legal precedent to the facts of the firefighter case. She rejected suggestions that the Supreme Court had overturned her panel’s decision. Instead, she said the Supreme Court created a new legal standard and applied it for the first time in the New Haven case.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah took exception to Sotomayor’s stance. He said the appeals court did not give proper consideration to the white firefighters’ claims. Senator Hatch said even the four dissenting Supreme Court justices “felt the firefighters deserved their day in court.”
Sotomayor did not back down. She said the four dissenting justices also criticized the Supreme Court majority for not remanding the case back to Sotomayor’s appeals court panel to apply the new legal standard.
Hatch questioned why Sotomayor did not offer a more detailed analysis reflective of the difficult issues raised in the firefighters’ case. He said all nine Supreme Court justices took issue with Sotomayor’s approach to the case.
“People all over the country are tired of courts imposing their will against one group or another without any justification,” Hatch said.
This issue is far from over. Two of the New Haven firefighters are expected to testify later in the hearings at the invitation of Republican senators.
Sotomayor’s questioning by the senators is set to resume Wednesday morning.
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