Hooray for Data! Sotomayor and Rulings on Race

Jun 17 '09

Remember Sonia Sotomayor? She was someone the media was talking about a lot a while back there, at least before “Sarah Palin and David Letterman”:http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2009/06/16/david-letterman-apologizes-to-palins-over-coarse-joke-2/ got into their little flare up. If I remember correctly, the main things we learned about Sotomayor were (1) she thought she could be a good judge because she was a wise “latina woman”:http://www.politico.com/arena/archive/wiselatinawoman.html and (2) she apparently had it in for “white fire fighters”:http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2009/06/11/did-firefighters-stand-chance-sotomayor/. Surely, this woman was going to turn out to be someone who let her feelings about race get in the way of her judicial rulings, especially _vis a vis_ other justices?

Somewhat stunningly, however, it turns out that lifting one line from one speech and focusing on one ruling did not present a complete picture of her past judicial actions. Writing in the “NY Times Op-Ed”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/16/opinion/16goldstein.html page yesterday, Tom Goldstein reports on his analysis of the almost 100 times that Sotomayor weighed in on issues related to race while serving as an appellate judge. His findings:

bq. In addition to Ricci v. DeStefano, Judge Sotomayor has participated in 97 race-related cases. Of these, the court of appeals rejected the claim of discrimination roughly 80 times and agreed with it 10 times. (The remaining cases involved other kinds of claims or dispositions.) In the 10 cases in which the court of appeals favored claims of discrimination, nine resulted in unanimous rulings and seven involved at least one Republican-appointed judge. In the single time a judge dissented from a ruling in which Judge Sotomayor participated, the dissent was over a technical question, not race discrimination.

bq. In total, Judge Sotomayor has disagreed with her colleagues in race-related decisions — a fair measure of whether she is an outlier — only five times in 11 years. In that entire time, Judge Sotomayor has only twice dissented from a ruling on a substantive question of race discrimination.

His bottom line: after reviewing every single one of these race-related cases, he concluded that “Judge Sotomayor does not allow bias to infect her decision-making”.

While as a social scientist I would have liked to have heard a little bit more about his standards for making this conclusion (e.g., what evidence would have led him to accept the claim that bias did influence her decision making?), the piece overall struck me as an important contribution to our debate over Judge Sotomayor’s candidacy for the Supreme Court. And it once again reminds us just how much there is to do in bringing basic standards of research design (e.g., it might make sense to look across all of her rulings in this particular area rather than just one) to bear upon matters of public policy.