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Sotomayor's first words in first Supreme Court argument

Justice Sonia Sotomayor on steps of the Supreme Court

The case involved Hillary Clinton (the movie), the future of campaign finance reform and the sanctity of the 1st Amendment guarantee of free speech. Just the usual fodder for a Supreme Court tasked with being the last appeal for all causes, from all corners.

There were a few firsts.

Elena Kagan made her first argument at the high court as solicitor general, presenting the government's case that the movie was a campaign ad and therefore subject to regulation by the nation's campaign finance laws.

She was facing off against a former solicitor general, Theodore Olson, who was arguing that those laws violate the 1st Amendment rights of corporations and unions by banning them from political speech. "Why is it easier to dance naked, burn a flag or wear a T-shirt profanely opposing the draft," Olson said in July at the conservative Federalist Society, "than it is to advocate the election or defeat of a president? That cannot be right."

The case is so pivotal -- and so potentially tumultuous to decades of campaign finance law -- that the justices returned from their summer recess three weeks early to hear arguments.

And the case could be decided by two justices appointed by George W. Bush -- Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. -- who may have to choose between personal views and court precedents.

But no matter all of that.

Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina justice and the first high court appointment by President Obama, spoke her first words. And the world took note.

By all accounts, she jumped right into questioning. She appeared skeptical of arguments by Citizens United that the conservative group's 90-minute campaign-era movie about Clinton ("Not a musical comedy," observed Justice Stephen Breyer) was protected speech. And she questioned Olson about why he had abandoned a former argument -- that Citizens United was not really a corporation -- for a more sweeping one, that campaign funding restrictions discriminate against corporations.

Upbraided by several Republican senators during her confirmation hearings about the importance of respecting court precedents, she asked Olson why he seemed so intent on toppling it in this case. Her first words:

Mr. Olson, are you giving up on your earlier arguments that there are ways to avoid the constitutional question to resolve this case? I know that we asked for further briefing on this particular issue of overturning two of our Court's precedents. But are you giving up on your earlier arguments that there are statutory interpretations that would avoid the constitutional question?

His answer: No.

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo: Getty Images

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Comments () | Archives (4)

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These idiots are advocating overturning a rule that's been in place since 1907. Why not hand sovereignty of our country over to business leaders in foreign countries? That's essentially what they'll be doing.

Ha! I love it.

My feeling on this is that:

1. I need more info on the issue. I am unclear as to what the film is about. I gather the Attorney Olson and conservative Republican faction want to earn money on this attack on Clinton? I say this without really understanding the nature of the film or who exactly owns and will profit from it.

2. Very interesting postion for Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito to find themselves in after the recent Republician attack on Justice Sotomayor about sticking to the letter of the law and prior rulings. I would think they would be treading lightly as that would be ironic if they were accused of the same thing that Republicans used to attempt to keep Justice Sotomayor out.

3. I like it that Justice Sotomayor held Attorney Olson's feet to the fire in a very professional and direct way. Good show Justice Sotomayor.

4. I love it that we have a Latina lady that worked her way up from modest circumstances to be a Justice and what it tells our girls and ladies about what we can achieve and to be compassionate, direct and stand up to a whole room of people questioning every detail of who and what you are with grace and style is a large victory.

5. To Justice Sotomayor: You Go Lady! This lady from Texas with a tears streaming down her cheeks, could not be any prouder to have you as a shining example for every girl and lady in America. Continue to make us proud! Be the shining star you are meant to be!

6. All that being said I am probably a social moderate and somewhat of a fiscal conservative. Therefore, be care what you say about this Texan.

Love to You All.....

"First Generation American on Dad's side, Daughter of a Helicopter Pilot Vet of Vietnam that's passed away, Mother, Businesswoman, Big-hearted Lady and Texan!!!!!!!!"

I would have substituted the phrase "are you giving up on..." with "are you abandoning?" giving up is about surrender or resignation. Abandonment is dumping something that clearly doesn't work.


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About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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