Thursday, September 18th, 2014
Half-True
Obama
"Walking in the door (Sonia Sotomayor) would bring more experience on the bench, and more varied experience on the bench, than anyone currently serving on the United States Supreme Court had when they were appointed."

Barack Obama on Tuesday, May 26th, 2009 in a speech at the White House.

Sotomayor's experience does not significantly outstrip other justices

President Barack Obama introduced his first nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court with much praise.

"It's a measure of her qualities and her qualifications that Judge Sotomayor was nominated to the U.S. District Court by a Republican president, George H.W. Bush, and promoted to the Federal Court of Appeals by a Democrat, Bill Clinton," Obama said. "Walking in the door she would bring more experience on the bench, and more varied experience on the bench, than anyone currently serving on the United States Supreme Court had when they were appointed."

Listening to that quote, you might think Sotomayor was way ahead of the other justices when they were nominated. But after our review of the current justices, we find that Sotomayor has roughly the same experience they had.

Nevertheless, Obama's statement is technically accurate. Here's why:

It appears Obama is only counting legal experience obtained on the federal district courts or courts of appeal. It may surprise you to know that a judge need not sit on the district court level before being named to the higher appellate court. Compared with the sitting Supreme Court justices, Sotomayor is the only one to have experience on both the district court level and the appellate level. Hence Obama's claim that she has "more varied" experience.

But drill down into the numbers, and Sotomayor has more total federal court experience only by a single year, and two justices have more appellate experience than she does.

Sotomayor served six years on the district court level and 11 years on the appellate level for a grand total of 17 years. Contrast this with Samuel Alito, who sat on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for 16 years, or Stephen Breyer, who sat on the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals for 14 years, with four of those as the chief judge. If you consider Sotomayor more experienced than these justices, it's only by a margin of a year or two. And constitutional lawyers (or the judges' moms) might argue that Alito and Breyer's additional appellate experience is more relevant than experience at the district court level.

If we take a broader view of experience than only federal court service, Sotomayor is about the same as most of her would-be fellow justices. (We have compiled a detailed chart on the professional experience of Sotomayor and the Supreme Court justices and have included it at the end of this article.)

This year, Sotomayor will have graduated from law school 30 years ago, with a full legal career under her belt. This is very close to the average number of years of experience we calculated for other justices at the time they were nominated. We calculated the average working experience of the current justices — omitting David Souter, whom Sotomayor may replace — and found that the average professional career prior to Supreme Court appointment was 28.7 years. By our count, four justices have slightly more years than Sotomayor in their legal careers: John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Chief Justice John Roberts and Alito.

To be clear, people could argue a lot over what kind of legal experience is more relevant or important to serving on the Supreme Court. Our analysis is based on years of service, and doesn't reflect the quality of the work of any of the justices.

Listening to what Obama said, though — "Walking in the door she would bring more experience on the bench, and more varied experience on the bench, than anyone currently serving on the United States Supreme Court had when they were appointed" — you might conclude that Sotomayor is more qualified than previous nominees to be a Supreme Court Justice. In fact, her legal career and years of experience are in line with the other justices.

Obama's statement is technically accurate, but also implies she's more qualified. We don't find that to be the case. We rate Obama's statement Half True.

Editor's note: For brevity, we've omitted some details of their experience, such as additional educational credentials or service on some boards and commissions.

John Paul Stevens
Took seat on court: Dec. 19, 1975, at age 55
Appellate court: 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, 1970-1975
Private practice: partner, Rothschild, Stevens, Barry & Myers, 1952-1970; associate, Poppenhusen, Johnston, Thompson & Raymond, 1949-1952
Teaching: Lecturer, antitrust law, Northwestern University School of Law, 1953-54; University of Chicago Law School, 1955-58
Federal government experience: associate counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on the Study of Monopoly Power, 1951–1952; member of the Attorney General’s National Committee to Study Antitrust Law, 1953–1955
Other experience: U.S. Navy, 1942-1945; clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Wiley Rutledge, 1947
Degrees: AB from the University of Chicago, 1941; JD from Northwestern University School of Law. 1947
Total federal court experience: 5 years
PolitiFact's estimate of relevant experience: 33 years


Antonin Scalia
Took seat on court: Sept. 26, 1986, at age 50
Appellate court: U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit, 1982-1986
Private practice: associate, Jones Day Cockley & Reavis, 1961-1967
Teaching: professor, University of Chicago Law School, 1977-1982; professor, University of Virginia Law School, 1967-1974
Federal government experience: general counsel, Office of Telecommunications Policy, 1971–1972; chairman of the Administrative Conference of the United States from 1972–1974; assistant attorney general, Office of Legal Counsel, U.S. Justice Department, 1974-1977
Degrees: AB, Georgetown University, 1957; LLB, Harvard University, 1960
Total federal court experience: 4 years
PolitiFact's estimate of relevant experience: 26 years


Anthony Kennedy
Took seat on court: Feb. 18, 1988 at age 51
Appellate court: 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, 1975-1988
Private practice: attorney, 1961-1967; partner, Evans, Jackson & Kennedy, 1967-1975
Teaching: professor, McGeorge School of Law, University of the Pacific, 1965-1988
Other experience: California Army National Guard, 1961
Degrees: AB, Stanford, 1958; LLB, Harvard, 1961
Total federal court experience: 13 years
PolitiFact's estimate of relevant experience: 27 years


Clarence Thomas
Took seat on court: Oct. 23, 1991 at age 43
Appellate court: U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, District of Columbia, 1990-1991
Private practice: attorney with the Monsanto Company, 1977-1979
State government experience: assistant attorney general of Missouri, 1974-1977
Federal government experience: legislative assistant to U.S. Sen. John Danforth, 1979–1981; assistant secretary for civil rights, U.S. Department of Education, 1981-1982; chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 1982–1990
Other experience:
Degrees: AB, Holy Cross College, 1971; JD, Yale, 1974
Total federal court experience: 1 year
PolitiFact's estimate of relevant experience: 17 years


Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Took seat on court: Aug. 10, 1993, at age 60
Appellate court: U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, District of Columbia, 1980-1993
Teaching: various research and teaching positions at Columbia University School of Law, 1961-1963 and 1972-1980; professor, Rutgers University School of Law, 1963-1972
Other experience: law clerk for federal court judge, 1959-1961; general counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union, 1973-1980
Degrees: AB, Cornell University, 1954; LLB, Columbia Law School, 1959.
Total federal court experience: 13 years
PolitiFact's estimate of relevant experience: 34 years


Stephen Breyer
Took seat on court: Aug. 3, 1994, at age 55
Appellate court: 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, 1980-1994 (chief judge, 1990-1994)
Teaching: various positions, Harvard Law School, 1967-1994; Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, 1977–1980
Federal government experience: special assistant to assistant attorney general (antitrust), U.S. Justice Department, 1965-1967; assistant special prosecutor, Watergate Special Prosecution Force, 1973; special counsel, U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, 1974-1975; chief counsel, U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, 1979-1981
Other experience: law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, 1964
Degrees: AB, Stanford University, 1959; BA, Oxford University, 1961; LLB, Harvard University, 1964
Total federal court experience: 14 years
PolitiFact's estimate of relevant experience: 30 years


Samuel Alito
Took seat on court: Jan. 31, 2006, at age 55
Appellate court: 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, 1990-2006
Federal government experience: assistant U.S. attorney, District of New Jersey, 1977–1981; assistant to the solicitor general, U.S. Justice Department, 1981–1985; deputy assistant attorney general, U.S. Justice Department, 1985–1987; U.S. attorney, District of New Jersey, 1987–1990
Other experience: law clerk for U.S. Court of Appeals, 3rd Circuit, 1976–1977
Degrees: AB, Princeton, 1972; JD, Yale University, 1975
Total federal court experience: 16 years
PolitiFact's estimate of relevant experience: 31 years


John Roberts
Took seat on court: Sept. 29, 2005, at age 50
Appellate court: U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, District of Columbia, 2003-2005
Private practice: partner, Hogan & Hartson LLP, 1986–1989 and 1993–2003 (associate, 1986-1987)
Federal government experience: special assistant to the attorney general, U.S. Justice Department, 1981–1982; associate counsel, White House Counsel’s Office, 1982–1986; principal deputy solicitor general, U.S. Justice Department, 1989–1993
Other experience: law clerk for U.S. Court of Appeals, 2nd Circuit, 1979–1980; law clerk for then-Associate Justice William Rehnquist of the U.S. Supreme Court, 1980-1981
Degrees: A.B., Harvard, 1976; JD, Harvard Law School, 1979
Total federal court experience: 2 years
PolitiFact's estimate of relevant experience: 31 years


Sonia Sotomayor
Age: 54
Appellate court: 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, 1998-2009
Federal court: U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, 1992-1998
Private practice: partner, Pavia & Harcourt, 1988-1992; associate, Pavia & Harcourt, 1984-1987
Teaching: adjunct professor, New York University Law School, 1998-2009; lecturer, Columbia Law School, 1999-2009
Local government experience: assistant district attorney, New York City, 1979-1984
Degrees: BA, Princeton University, 1976; JD, Yale University, 1979
Total federal court experience: 17 years
PolitiFact's estimate of relevant experience: 30 years