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Sonia Sotomayor: A Safe, Soporific Bet for the High Court

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By Richard Cohen
Monday, July 20, 2009; 8:44 PM

A political ad that lucky New Yorkers get to see on television begins with "A million lawyers in America" and goes on to wonder about certain no-bid contracts in nearby New Jersey that will not concern us today. But every time the ad runs, I cannot help thinking about Sonia Sotomayor: A million lawyers in America, and Barack Obama chooses her for the Supreme Court.

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Don't get me wrong. She is fully qualified. She is smart and learned and experienced and, in case you have not heard, a Hispanic, female nominee, of whom there have not been any since the dawn of our fair republic. But she has no cause, unless it is not to make a mistake, and has no passion, unless it is not to show any, and lacks intellectual brilliance, unless it is disguised under a veil of soporific competence until she takes her seat on the court. We shall see.

In the meantime, Sotomayor will do, and will do very nicely, as a personification of what ails the American left. She is, as everyone has pointed out, in the mainstream of American liberalism, a stream both intellectually shallow and preoccupied with the past. We have a neat summary of it in the recent remarks of Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), who said he wanted a Supreme Court justice "who will continue to move the court forward in protecting . . . important civil rights." He cited the shooting of a gay youth, the gang rape of a lesbian and the murder of a black man -- in other words, violence based on homophobia and racism. Yes. But who nowadays disagrees?

What, though, about a jurist who can advance the larger cause of civil rights and at the same time protect individual rights? This was the dilemma raised by the New Haven firefighters' case. The legal mind who could have found a "liberal" way out of the thicket would deserve a Supreme Court seat. As an appellate judge, Sotomayor did not even attempt such an exercise. She punted.

She was similarly disappointing on capital punishment. She seems to support it. Yet it is an abomination. It grants the government a right that it should never have, one that has been abused over the years by despots, potentates and racist cops. It is always an abuse of power, always an exercise in arrogance -- it admits no possibility of a mistake -- and totally without efficacy. It is not a deterrent, and it endorses the mentality of the killer: Human life is not inviolate.

From Sotomayor, though, came not one whimper of regret about the current legality of capital punishment. Innocent men may die, the cause of humanism may stall, but she will follow the jot and tittle of the law, with which she has no quarrel anyway. Little wonder moderate conservative senators are enamored.

Contrast her approach to this and other problems with what Antonin Scalia has done with issues close to his own heart. Where in all of Sotomayor's opinions, speeches and now testimony is there anything approaching Scalia's dissent in Morrison v. Olson, in which, alone, he not only found fault with the law creating special prosecutors but warned about how it would someday be abused? "Frequently an issue of this sort will come before the court clad, so to speak, in sheep's clothing," he wrote. "But this wolf comes as a wolf."

My admiration for Scalia is constrained by the fact that I frequently believe him to be wrong. But his thinking is often fresh, his writing is often bracing; and, more to my point, he has no counterpart on the left. His liberal and moderate brethren wallow in bromides; they can sometimes outvote him, but they cannot outthink him.

This is the sad state of both liberalism and American politics. First-class legal brains are not even nominated lest some senator break into hives at the prospect of encountering a genuinely new idea. The ceiling is further lowered by the need to season the court with diversity, a wonderful idea as long as brilliance is not compromised. The result has been the rout of sexism: The women are as mediocre as the men.

From all we know, Sotomayor is no Scalia. She is no Thurgood Marshall, either, or even a John Roberts, who is leading the court in his own direction. She will be confirmed. But if she is not, liberalism will not have lost much of a champion or a thinker. A million lawyers in America and something Jimmy Carter used to say comes to mind: Why not the best?

cohenr@washpost.com


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