Saturday, July 11, 2009

Judge Sotomayor Again

Chris Mealy offers a provocative two-part comment re Sonia Sotomayor,each part of which deserve a response.

One: I had said that Judge Sotomayor struck me as "lonely." Chris said "worked for Souter." I don't agree at all. Seems to me that Souter is one of those rare creatures who actually enjoys his own company. For money, got zillions; he doesn't have to live up a dirt road in Weare. Hey, if he wanted bright lights, he could move to Concord. Sotomayor, meanwhile, is there in the West Village, ensconced--uneasily, as it seems to me--alone in the middle of her vast network.

Chris' other point is more intriguing:
What is the ideal temperament and personality for a supreme court judge then? I suspect creativity might not be that useful. Creative people often go too far and in weird directions. That's what makes them fun (I'm thinking of Posner here). A boring old grind with a good heart might be just right.
You know, I have often wondered about that. And I may have said earlier (I'm too lazy to check)--I think that of all the qualities you might want in a good judge, brain power is not at the top of the list. It may be on the list somewhere, but I think I'd put it somewhere around sixth or seventh, behind--

Well, behind what? Might depend on your point of view. For a lawyer practicing in her court, I suppose steadiness/predictability is at the head of the list. Followed by diligence (which is not the same as workaholism). An ability to listen. Empathy/compassion gets in there, although even compassion can be overrated if it blots out any sense of principle or focus.

I suppose "knowledge of the law" gets in here somewhere also, but again, I suspect that as a quality it maybe, if not overvalued, at least misunderstood. A judge should know the basics of course, but beyond that, but she can't be expected to know everything. And part of the job of counsel is to advise him on the law; to make sure he does not fall into error. See steadiness, diligence, an willingness to listen, empathy, supra.

What is that, five? Okay, maybe I will let brain-power come next, but with a warning. As with being a lawyer, being a judge is in large part drudgery (think Mickey Mouse in the Sorcerer's Apprentice). Any experienced lawyer can point to judges who have been at it too long and who get bored with it and get weird--and this peril is likely to afflict the smart ones more severely than the stupid.

I'm pretty sure that judge Sotomayor is not "brilliant" in this sense, and as I suggest, I think that counts in her favor (I think I am more or less agreeing with Chris here). A particular problem for her is that she is joining a court of people who, for the most part, count themselves as "brilliant." Some--Alito, Breyer, maybe Roberts and Ginsberg--may deserve the imputation. Others--Scalia and Kennedy--probably less so than they think. I suspect that Thomas is pretty sure he is not brilliant and I wish I could persuade him that he is perhaps the better for it (John Paul Stevens was off playing golf in Florida and not available for testing). Part of her challenge will be figuring out how to cope with such a bunch of thoroughbreds--it's one of the reasons I tended to favor the former dean at Harvard, who has been dealing with a stable full of prima donnas for years now. Or Judge Wood from Chicago, who has some how learned to put up with Judges Posner and Easterbrook. It's hard to guess how she will do it: the Second Circuit, for all its talent, is really not the same kind of club. For this duty, maybe Judge Sotomayor's best preparation was not her childhood in the Bronx, nor her coming-out at Princeton and Yale, but her time going to lunch in Chinatown in a bullet-proof vest.

1 comment:

chrismealy said...

Thanks for the reply. It hadn't occurred to me that dealing with big egos would be a part of the job.