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Sotomayor hearings: Ferraris and orange peels -- as a commercial litigator she saw it all

July 15, 2009 | 11:04 am

Ted Kaufman, who was Joe Biden’s chief of staff for almost 20 years and was appointed to the Senate after his boss became vice president, asked Judge Sonia Sotomayor about her experience as a commercial litigator. Why, he wanted to know, did she leave the D.A.’s office to become a commercial litigator?

Under friendly Democratic questioning, she seemed more relaxed and expansive.

Sotomayor said she wanted to broaden her legal experience and address “my growing belief that economic opportunities were the way to address the growth needs of communities.”

She loved the experience, she said, and did work on issues that included grain commodity trading, “including orange peels as feed for animals, OK?” and on cases involving the Italian car manufacturer Ferrari and the Bradley Tire Corp. She also worked for a fashion house on trademark issues.

Working as a commercial litigator came in handy when she became a judge, both in district court and in federal appeals court, because it led her to appreciate that, “in business the predictability of law may be the most necessary, in the sense that people organize their business relationships by how they understand the courts interpret their contracts.”

She recalled a lesson on the importance of phrasing things correctly in business documents. “I would draft agreements like a litigator … in simple words,” and it would come back from attorneys with new, more complicated language. “I would … say, ‘What does this gobbledygook mean?’ And they would say, ‘This is very important. This is how the courts have interpreted it…. and then I understood why it was important to phrase things in a certain way.”

Her practical way of looking at cases, she said, was not always appreciated by her clients.

One, whom she would not name, came to her with a “fairly substantial litigation.” She evaluated the case and told the client that, while the case may be winnable, it would cost the client millions of dollars, and, she implied, she urged him to settle the case.

“The client went to another lawyer, who gave him a different evaluation. My firm lost all that income, but the client came back afterwards, because the figure that I put on that case was exactly what they spent.”

As a result, she said, when she became a circuit court judge, she was “very conscious of the cost of litigation.”

— Robin Abcarian

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