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Sotomayor hearings: Is judge a temperamental bully?

July 14, 2009 |  1:56 pm


Before Sonia Sotomayor was even nominated to the Supreme Court by President Obama, an article in the New Republic appeared to damage her chances critically. The article, titled "The Case Against Sotomayor," by George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen, quoted the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary, a guidebook to federal judges.

The almanac solicits comments from lawyers who practice before the judges profiled in the book -- and because of the delicate nature of the feedback, the comments are anonymous. The lawyers quoted complained that Sotomayor was a "bully" and a "terror" on the bench, suggested she wasn't "that smart" and was rude to lawyers who made arguments she didn't like.

The article sparked an Internet firestorm. And Sotomayor's defenders suggested she was being portrayed as an irrational, overly emotional Latina in a way that a man in her position would not be.

After the retirement of Justice David Souter was announced, it was thought by many observers that the piece had harmed Sotomayor's candidacy for the high court. (The White House apparently didn't agree.) And after she was announced, the issue of temperament surfaced briefly and slowly disappeared, buried beneath issues such as the "wise Latina" speech and the New Haven, Conn., firefighter case.

This afternoon, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) brought those old remarks up again, asking Sotomayor flatly whether she had a "temperament problem." Sotomayor didn't apologize for asking tough questions of lawyers in her court and said that her circuit is what's called a "hot bench," in which judges routinely question litigants aggressively.

It should be noted that being tough on advocates is de rigeur for the Supreme Court. Lawyers there often barely begin their presentations before they are interrupted by one of justices. Being able to survive that sort of intense questioning and still deliver your argument is viewed as a badge of honor. If anyone ever asked Antonin Scalia if he had a temperament problem, he'd probably readily agree -- and be proud of it.

-- James Oliphant

Photo: Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina asked Sonia Sotomayor some tough questions. Credit: Michael Reynolds / EPA

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