Saturday, November 29th, 2014

The (Half) Truth About Judge Sonia Sotomayor

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor meets with Sen. Al Franken.
Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor meets with Sen. Al Franken.

When senators deliver their opening statements at the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor on Monday, you can be sure of a few things:

Someone will mention that she's a lifelong Yankees fan (no need to fact-check that) and Republican senators will criticize her for the New Haven firefighter case, her comments about how race and ethnicity affect judicial decisions and the fact that some of her rulings (now including New Haven) have been overturned by the Supreme Court.

Since Sotomayor was nominated on May 26, 2009, we've examined the main attacks against Sotomayor and reached the same Truth-O-Meter ruling in nearly every one: Half True.

We usually give a range of rulings on any given subject, so it's unusual to have so many Half True ratings on the same topic. Six of the eight claims we've checked on Sotomayor have been earned that rating.

The Republican National Committee got a Half True for its claim that she has said that "policy is made on the U.S. Court of Appeals." We found she said something along those lines but that the RNC was taking the comment out of context.

The conservative Judicial Confirmation Network earned a Half True for saying that Sotomayor thinks "that one’s sex, race and ethnicity ought to affect the decisions one renders from the bench." That one too was taken out of context.

And the same goes for the Libertarian National Committee's claim that she's had cases reversed by the Supreme Court "a troubling four times." The Libertarian group made it sound like she was a bungling jurist, but the experts we consulted said her rate of cases overturned was typical. Half True , again.

Even President Barack Obama got a Half True — for his comments praising her. He claimed Sotomayor "would bring more experience on the bench . . . than anyone currently serving on the United States Supreme Court." We found that she was highly experienced, but not significantly moreso than some of the other justices when they were confirmed.

It's worth noting that the two claims that earned something other than Half True were made by pundits. Rush Limbaugh earned a Barely True for distorting her ruling in the New Haven case. And in our newest item, Ann Coulter earned a False for suggesting that Sotomayor issued an unsigned opinion in the New Haven case because she was trying to duck responsibility for it.

Tom Goldstein, a Washington attorney who specializes in Supreme Court cases and runs the well-respected SCOTUSBlog, which follows the court, said the middle-of-the meter readings reflect a middle-of-the-road nominee.

"I think this is the natural consequence of the fortunate fact that Sotomayor — like Roberts and Alito before her —  are actually good, non wild-eyed nominees.  So opponents really have to stretch," Goldstein said in an e-mail message to PolitiFact.

But they do stretch. "It's also a consequence of the nature of the public's interest in the law that no one pays attention unless the other side is painted basically as a lunatic," he said.