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Let’s Get Realist

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I don’t necessary agree with every nuance — to say that law isn’t determinate is different than saying that there is “no law” — but I’m still gratified to see this kind of analysis in a major publication:

In her opening statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, Sonia Sotomayor said that she wanted to clear up some questions about her views. “In the past month, many senators have asked me about my judicial philosophy,” she said. “Simple: fidelity to the law. The task of a judge is not to make law—it is to apply the law.” Coming from a jurist of such distinction, this was a disappointing answer. Like much of her testimony, it suggested that the job of a Supreme Court Justice is merely to identify the correct precedents, apply them rigorously, and thus render appropriate decisions.

In fact, Justices have a great deal of discretion—in which cases they take, in the results they reach, in the opinions they write. When it comes to interpreting the Constitution—in deciding, say, whether a university admissions office may consider an applicant’s race—there is, frankly, no such thing as “law.” In such instances, Justices make choices, based largely, though not exclusively, on their political views of the issues involved. In reaching decisions this way, the Justices are not doing anything wrong; there is no other way to interpret the majestic vagueness of the Constitution. But the fact that Judge Sotomayor managed to avoid discussing any of this throughout four days of testimony is indicative of the way the confirmation process, as it is now designed, misleads the public about what it is that Justices do.

Like Toobin, I don’t blame Sotomayor (or Roberts, or Alito) for this — it’s how the game is played — but the number of analysts who take these statements seriously is pretty embarrassing.

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