Much ink has been spilled over the last week analyzing the background and record of Judge Sonia Sotomayor, the nominee to replace Justice David Souter on the United States Supreme Court.    Given that the Supreme Court’s docket has included a large number of employment related cases in recent years, a record which is likely to continue given the many changes to the federal employment laws under the Obama administration, how will a Justice Sotomayor potentially affect the jurisprudence in this area?

Judge Sotomayor has served as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit since 1998, and before that was a U.S. District Court judge in New York.   In one of her most notable cases as a trial court judge, Judge Sotomayor issued an injunction which prevented the Major League Baseball owners from using replacement players during the 1995 season.   

More recently, Judge Sotomayor was part of a three judge panel of the Second Circuit that issued a controversial opinion in the case of Ricci v. DeStefano ,a case which ultimately was appealed to the U.S Supreme Court.    Ricci involves a claim of reverse discrimination by a group of firefighters in New Haven, Connecticut, seventeen of whom are white and one who is Hispanic.    Based upon the results of written and oral promotional exams, only white and Hispanic candidates qualified for promotion to the position of Captain, and only white candidates qualified for promotion to Lieutenant.   Because no black candidate had a high enough score to be considered for the available captain and lieutenant positions, the City’s Civil Service Board refused to certify the results of the exam, which prevented the promotions from occurring.  The trial court found that the City’s refusal to allow the promotions did not constitute race discrimination, and granted summary judgment to the City (a thorough discussion of the decision is reported at Connecticut Employment Law Blog). 

The three judge panel on which Judge Sotomayor sat issued a short opinion affirming the trial court, but did not analyze any of the substantive issues.    Notably, another judge on the Second Circuit was critical of the panel for failing to address the important constitutional claims at issue in the case, stating that "this perfunctory disposition rests uneasily with the weighty issues presented by this appeal."    At least one critic has opined that Judge Sotomayor’s apparent refusal to weigh in on this important issue of civil rights law does not make her a jurist worthy of serious consideration for the Supreme Court. 

Judge Sotomayor certainly has a compelling personal story, and she may have empathy, but it remains to be seen whether she will make positive contributions to the development of employment law.   Stay tuned.