Some media reject claims that Sotomayor is a liberal activist

››› ››› NATHAN TABAK

Conservative media figures have been quick to describe Sonia Sotomayor as, in Sean Hannity's words, "left-wing" and an "activist." Several media figures and legal experts reject this characterization, describing her as a "political centrist."

In anticipation of and following President Obama's nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, media conservatives were quick to describe her as, in the words of Fox News' Sean Hannity, a "left-wing judge" who may be "the most activist nominee in the history of the court." But several media figures and outlets, legal experts, and liberal commentators don't subscribe to this characterization, instead calling Sotomayor a "moderate," "centrist," "moderate liberal," or judicial "minimalist." For example, American Bar Association Journal editor and publisher Edward A. Adams wrote that Sotomayor is a "political centrist." Other examples include:

  • During the May 26 edition of CNN's American Morning, Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz stated of Sotomayor: "She'll be a kind of moderate to the left but not strong left. I don't think she'll be much of a judicial activist. She's a centrist with leanings toward the left, having been nominated by a Republican president initially, then promoted by a Democratic president."
  • During the May 26 edition of CNN's American Morning, senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin stated that Sotomayor "will be a voice like David Souter for moderate liberalism." Co-host T.J. Holmes then asked, "And moderate liberalism. I was going to add, that's what Dershowitz just to us on the phone a moment ago. But he described her as moderate and to the left. Is that about right?" Toobin replied, "I would say that's right." Later that day, on CNN's The Situation Room, Toobin stated that "my guess is, based on her long paper trail, Sonia Sotomayor will be a moderate liberal, like Ginsburg and Breyer."
  • In a May 26 appearance on CNN's No Bias, No Bull, Harvard Law School professor Charles J. Ogletree called Sotomayor "a careful, middle-of-the-road judge" and said: "I'd like to say she's a liberal. She's not. Progressive, she's not. She's affirmed more government cases than is normal. She's a tough prosecutor. She's a tough judge." Ogletree added: "[H]ere is somebody dead in the center of the court. She's not going to move it one way or the other." Later that day on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, Ogletree told guest host John King: "The Republicans should be applauding this because this is a person who's tough on criminal justice issues, who sides with business frequently, who's not willing to buy a silly argument that makes no difference."
  • In an appearance on the May 26 edition of MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show, Slate.com's Dahlia Lithwick responded to a question from Maddow about whether Sotomayor might shift the court to the left: "I think that if you look at her record -- and I've spent the day doing it -- she's pretty text based." Lithwick subsequently said, "I mean, she is not the liberals' answer to Scalia or John Roberts. She is very, very much a moderate, temperate, minimalist, careful liberal."
  • Appearing on NPR's Morning Edition on May 26, The New Republic's legal affairs editor Jeffrey Rosen -- who had previously written a controversial TNR article featuring anonymously sourced attacks on Sotomayor's temperament and intelligence -- said of Sotomayor: "Her opinions don't suggest that she is an extreme liberal, and indeed, conservative attempts to paint her as some crazy judicial activist will fail 'cause they're pretty technical, middle-of-the-road opinions."
  • A May 26 Politico article on conservative opposition to Sotomayor concluded that "Sotomayor's history suggests the very sort of judicial restraint that conservatives clamor for in a nominee." The article reported that Sotomayor "ruled against an abortion-rights group challenging Bush's policy of banning overseas groups that take federal funds from conducting abortions" and "ruled in favor of abortion protesters," and quoted Bruce Hausknecht, a judicial analyst for the conservative group Focus on the Family Action, who stated: "She applied the law even-handedly and come out with the right decision." Politico further reported: "Sotomayor's rulings on religious liberty issues also have pleased the conservative community."
  • Appearing on MSNBC's Hardball on May 26, Salon.com editor-in-chief Joan Walsh said of Sotomayor: "[L]iberals are not jumping for joy on this one. She got a very tepid kind of endorsement from NARAL because she had a controversial vote on the global gag rule that kept the federal government from giving money overseas to people who might advocate abortion. She did not come down on the feminists' side on that one. She has a very mixed record. The ABA calls her a moderate and not a liberal."

From the May 26 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

CHRIS MATTHEWS (host): As for her philosophy, is that fair game, Joan? Because I remember Chuck Schumer --

WALSH: I think her --

MATTHEWS: -- he'll be on the show in a minute -- once said, "Let's stop nitpicking, looking for little things in the background of a judge we can knock him off or knock her off with, when we really disagree with their philosophy." Isn't it fair game for Pat to disagree with her philosophy and urge her defeat on that ground?

WALSH: Absolutely. It's fair game for Pat to disagree, and it's fair game if Republicans ultimately decide that she is a judicial activist. But, you know, Chris, the interesting thing here is liberals are not jumping for joy on this one.

She got a very tepid kind of endorsement from NARAL because she had a controversial vote on the global gag rule that kept the federal government from giving money overseas to people who might advocate abortion. She did not come down on the feminists' side on that one. She has a very --

MATTHEWS: Yeah.

WALSH: -- mixed record. The ABA calls her a moderate and not a liberal. So, Pat -- you know, Pat and I disagree a lot, but I think he's an intelligent man. I think if he did more reading and didn't just resort to --

MATTHEWS: OK.

WALSH: -- the affirmative action talking points --

PAT BUCHANAN (MSNBC political analyst): Let me tell you. Justice --

WALSH: -- he might find that there's more that he agrees with --

BUCHANAN: All right, Robert Bork and --

WALSH: -- than he disagrees with.

From the May 26 edition of CNN's Campbell Brown: No Bias, No Bull:

LISA BLOOM (CNN anchor and legal analyst): Professor Ogletree, she has a long history as a court of appeals judge and a district judge, but one would look in vain for any decision on the merits on abortion rights. Abortion rights only stand in this country by a 5 to 4 vote. Do we have a sense of where she stands there?

OGLETREE: I don't think so. And I don't think that you can have a litmus test at all about her views, because she's issued more than 400 opinions when she was on the district court appointed by George H.W. Bush, participated in thousands of cases on the 10 years on the circuit court. And she's a careful, middle-of-the-road judge.

I'd like to say she's a liberal. She's not. Progressive, she's not. She's affirmed more government cases than is normal. She's a tough prosecutor. She's a tough judge. And those who will complain about a sentence in a script or sentence in a speech or an offhand remark are missing the point.

Liberals and conservatives should be pleased that here is somebody dead in the center of the court. She's not going to move it one way or the other.

From the May 26 edition of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360:

KING: Judge Ogletree, let me try a devil's advocate here. Let's say, you're a -- sometimes lawyers are hired to do things they don't want to do. If the opposition hired you and you had to go through this record and say, here's the one thing she should worry most about, what would it be?

OGLETREE: That she's a judge who's written a lot. But the reality is, if you look at that, what I'm hearing now is laughable. It's laughable. You talk about a speech at Duke, or a speech at Berkeley -- there are thousands of lines she's written.

You can't find anything there -- if they can impeach her, disown her, criticize her. But the reality is that the only thing you can find about her is that she is sincere; she's empathetic; she's independent; she's tough; she's smart. And you know what? She's going to have an impact on the court for a very long time.

The Republicans should be applauding this because this is a person who's tough on criminal justice issues, who sides with business frequently, who's not willing to buy a silly argument that makes no difference. And even in the Ricci case that Jeff has made a reference to, the Supreme Court will probably decide the case 5 to 4.

From the May 26 edition of MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show:

MADDOW: On balance -- on the question of whether or not she will move the court in either direction, when you look at her record, Dahlia, do you think that she will be sort of where Souter is? Do you think she'll be to the left? Do you think she'll be to the right of Souter?

LITHWICK: She's a -- I think she's pretty much Souter. I think that if you look at her record -- and I've spent the day doing it -- she's pretty text based. She looks at the statutes. She looks at the precedent. She's kind of -- she's kind of really a very moderate liberal.

Now, on the 2nd Circuit, she's on the liberal half. On the Supreme Court, she'll also be on the liberal half. But the notion that she's kind of -- some kind of Scalia in a dress just could not be further off. I mean, she is not the liberals' answer to Scalia or John Roberts. She is very, very much a moderate, temperate, minimalist, careful liberal.

MADDOW: Which, of course, leaves open the question of whether liberals will ever get their John Roberts or Antonin Scalia, but that I guess will be settled by the next nominee.

Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor at Slate.com, thank you so much for your time tonight.

LITHWICK: Thanks, Rachel.

From the May 26 edition of NPR's Morning Edition:

STEVE INSKEEP (host): Jeffrey Rosen, I want to just interrupt you, 'cause we got about a minute left, and I want to follow up on something you said -- when you said she could be a liberal counterweight to Justice Antonin Scalia, who is one of the strongest, maybe the most famous of the conservative justices on the court.

I want to understand that because this is a judge who, just a few years ago, Democrats presented as a moderate judge, someone that President Bush himself might be willing to think about nominating. Conservatives fiercely disagreed, and it sounds like you do. You find her to be a very strong, liberal judge.

ROSEN: I said the hope is that she might be a fierce, liberal counterpart to Scalia. Her opinions don't suggest that she is an extreme liberal, and indeed, conservative attempts to paint her as some crazy judicial activist will fail 'cause they're pretty technical, middle-of-the-road opinions.

She hasn't had a huge number of really controversial constitutional cases. The big case that Obama cited nominating her was the baseball case. So it's almost as if there are conflicting hopes for her. Maybe she'll be a liberal Scalia. She can't quite be a conciliator. She has enough experience to recognize the political role of the court and so forth.

I think the bottom line is that the politics of this were so compelling --

INSKEEP: OK.

ROSEN: -- the first Hispanic justice and so forth, that was the overriding consideration. And which role precisely she'll actually play on the court remains to be seen.

INSKEEP: Jeffrey Rosen, thanks very much. He's author of The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries That Defined America.

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