By Marie Cocco
Sonia Sotomayor, a woman and a proud Puerto Rican, is going to be a Supreme Court justice for the majority of us.
The talking points repeated with numbing banality—that Sotomayor was chosen to help diversify a Supreme Court still shamefully dominated by white men, that she would be the first Latina to be elevated to such a perch—do not quite capture the moment. Sotomayor did so herself at her introductory White House ceremony. The nominee said she hopes Americans “will see that I am an ordinary person who has been blessed with extraordinary opportunities and experiences.”
Ordinary people have had a difficult time of it before the current Supreme Court.
The hot-button topics—abortion, voting rights, anti-terrorism measures—that burn with such intensity during confirmation controversies obscure the more prosaic cases in which corporate interests have, with increasing frequency, carried the day. A high court once known for landmark rulings protecting consumers, workers, victims of corporate negligence and others has increasingly sided against them, and in favor of powerful interests. The trend is perhaps best exemplified by the court’s decision last year to slash to a relative pittance the amount of punitive damages Exxon Mobil must pay for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, an environmental catastrophe that contaminated vast stretches of property and ruined the livelihoods of those whose work depended on the waters of Alaska’s Prince William Sound.
It is an exquisite irony that the ruling for which Sotomayor is best known, her 1995 injunction that effectively ended a crippling baseball strike, involved two parties—wealthy Major League Baseball owners and their stable of wealthy players—who are anything but ordinary. But the case hinged on whether the owners could unilaterally impose a new set of rules on free agency and arbitration without negotiating with the players’ union, whose contract covered both.
Sotomayor became known as the judge who “saved baseball.” But she did so by saving the very idea that a labor contract cannot be summarily broken by management. “This strike has placed the entire concept of collective bargaining on trial,” she said then.
A second case is of equal importance, with more everyday applicability in this age when workers are so often told to do without—or do without their jobs. In 1998, Sotomayor ruled that two business improvement groups in New York City had violated minimum wage laws by paying homeless people as little as $1 an hour to perform office work, laundry jobs and custodial duties. Sotomayor found that the homeless were used in the same assignments as regular employees, and one even filled in for a supervisor. They were employees, not “trainees” as the business groups had claimed, and so had to be paid the legal minimum.
In other cases, she has sided with disabled workers, and with a worker seeking health insurance benefits after his insurer sought to use technicalities to block his claim.
This is the kind of ruling judges make when they have seen their widowed mother work six days a week—as Sotomayor says her mother did to support her and her brother on a nurse’s pay. It is the sort of decision-making that comes from attending Princeton and Yale Law School after living in a public housing project, not at prep school.
It is supported by previous cases, precedents that the current Supreme Court can blithely ignore—as it did in the case of Lilly Ledbetter, when it reversed decades of pay discrimination law and ruled that Ledbetter, a former tire company manager, could not sue for pay inequities that began years before she discovered them. Congress reversed that ruling with legislation, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act became the first law President Obama signed.
There is little likelihood that Sotomayor, if confirmed as expected, will alter a Supreme Court balance that has had a predictable conservative majority in many contentious cases. But even if her decisions are not decisive, her voice will be determined and clear.
It will ring with the cadence of New York’s ethnically diverse working class, and of women who Sotomayor knows have, like her mother, been paid low wages in traditionally female occupations such as nursing, no matter how vital their jobs or considerable their skills. It will have the pitch of a fan who still sits in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium, according to The New York Times, because the judge believes the experience is authentic.
It is a sound the cloistered Supreme Court desperately needs to hear.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group