When six Supreme Court justices on Tuesday upheld Michigan's ban on race-based affirmative action in state college admissions, the decision provoked consternation from all the predictable characters, so it may be a good time to consider Justice Sonia Sotomayor's advice on how to think about the high court's rulings: Don't trust the media reports.
"There is a real problem relying on the news to tell you what Supreme Court cases say," Sotomayor said at Georgetown Law School. "And I know we make it a little bit hard because when you pick up our opinions they tend to be long and they often have a lot of jargon. I encourage you, however, not to rely on the news, as citizens. Actually read the opinions. When you do, and if you actually read them with an open mind, you'll often come out saying, 'they both seem right; how can that be?' Well that can be because the law is unclear, because precedents don't really settle that question."
Sotomayor made those comments three weeks ago, the day after the court ruled that individuals can donate to as many candidates as they like, as long as they obey the legal limits on donations to each candidate. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., accused the Republican-appointed justices on the court of conspiring to help the Republican Party.
"Anybody who looks at their rulings in the area of elections has to see a very very disturbing sight of 5-4 decisions, of precedent overruled, of extreme and unnecessary and in fact improper fact-finding, and ultimately all the needles point to the same direction, like every compass points true north, and it's always what advantages the current Republican Party," Whitehouse told the Washington Examiner. "That's a tough place for a court to be and there are too many decisions for it to be happenstance."
Tuesday's affirmative action ruling was a 6-2 decision (Justice Elena Kagan recused herself), with liberal Justice Stephen Breyer joining the conservative bloc in opposition to Sotomayor and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Liberals are outraged, again. "Either the Roberts Court is woefully ignorant of the effect their ruling will have on students of color, or they are perfectly okay with a society that makes it harder for those students to get a quality education at the very moment when we should be making it easier," said MSNBC's Alex Wagner, name-checking Chief Justice John Roberts, but not Breyer (who was appointed by the other "first black president," Bill Clinton).
"The Supreme Court decision upholding the state of Michigan's ban of using race as a factor in affirmative action is a devastating blow to the civil rights community," the Rev. Al Sharpton said. "The ramifications of this will be far-reaching and could tie us up in endless battles. We must mobilize immediately for state referendums to counter this decision to protect the ongoing battle to redress the historic needed repairs to racial discrimination."
Let's return to Sotomayor, whom Wagner described as "searing and absolutely spot-on" in her dissent in the affirmative action case. Let's look one more time at her comments in Georgetown:
"Actually read the opinions. When you do, and if you actually read them with an open mind, you'll often come out saying, 'they both seem right; how can that be?' Well that can be because the law is unclear, because precedents don't really settle that question," she said. "And you have to believe, the way I do, that this group of nine are each passionate about trying to find the right answer. And even though we disagree as to what that answer may be or may not be, we all are filled with the same passion. That's how I can stand being, sometimes, on the losing end of a case."
You can read the opinions and the dissent here.