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Uncommon Detail Marks Rulings by Sotomayor

Legal experts said rulings by Judge Sonia Sotomayor fall within the mainstream of those by Democratic-appointed judges.
Legal experts said rulings by Judge Sonia Sotomayor fall within the mainstream of those by Democratic-appointed judges. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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Sotomayor dissented, arguing that all were illegal and blasting any strip search as "severely intrusive." Citing documents from pretrial discovery, she broke down all 34 strip searches at the facilities in which contraband was found on a prisoner from 1995 to 2000 -- searches that were not part of the lawsuit. She concluded that there was "absolutely no evidence that suspicionless strip searches were necessary."

(The Supreme Court last month voiced skepticism of strip-searching teenage girls, ruling 8 to 1 that Arizona school officials violated the constitutional rights of a 13-year-old girl when they strip-searched her on suspicion that she might be hiding ibuprofen in her underwear.)

Hellman, the law professor, called Sotomayor's approach "a kind of carpet-bombing, a relentless mustering of facts. She goes well beyond what is necessary for the case and is determined not to just defeat the other side, but to annihilate it."

Sotomayor's style is consistent even when she finds against defendants, such as when she affirmed the conviction of a child pornography defendant in 2004. A U.S. district court judge had concluded after an evidentiary hearing that the man was innocent but denied his petition because it was filed too late.

Even though she had decided the core issue -- the conviction -- Sotomayor broke down the witnesses and testimony at the judge's hearing. She concluded that his finding of innocence was "clearly erroneous," even as she said that district courts "are generally best placed to evaluate testimony in light of the witnesses' demeanor."

A fellow Democratic appointee, Judge Rosemary S. Pooler, dissented. Sotomayor's opinion, she wrote, was based on "speculations and conjectures" and disregarded the judge's "role as the finder-of-facts."

"It is inappropriate in all but the most extraordinary cases for this Court to second-guess a district court's credibility findings," Pooler concluded. "The majority's dissection of the district court's decision departs from our precedents and wrongly supplants the lower court's assessment of the evidence with its own factual inferences, never having seen or heard any of the testimony that it now seeks to discredit."

Database editor Sarah Cohen contributed to this report.

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