Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sotomayor Is High Court Pick; Here Are Her Religion Decisions

President Obama has nominated Second Circuit Judge Sonia Sotomayor to replace retiring Justice David Souter on the United States Supreme Court. (New York Times). If confirmed by the Senate, Sotomayor will be the first Hispanic to serve on the high court. Sotomayor has served on the Second Circuit since 1998. She served as a federal district court judge in the Southern District of New York from 1992 to 1998. Here is an overview of her judicial views on free exercise, establishment clause and other religion issues. She wrote more on the issue as a district court judge than she has on the 2nd Circuit.

On the Second Circuit, Sotomayor wrote an important dissent in one case

  • Hankins v. Lyght, (2006): In an age discrimination challenge by a Methodist clergyman, Judge Winter writing for the majority held that RFRA is properly applied to an Age Discrimination in Employment Act claim. Judge Sotomayor dissented contending that RFRA does not apply to disputes between private parties and that the ADEA does not govern disputes between religious entities and their spiritual leaders.
Judge Sotomayor wrote the court's opinion in 3 other religion-related cases on the 2nd Circuit:

Sotomayor was on the 2nd Circuit panel that decided a number of other religion-related cases, many of which were either prisoner or immigration cases. Three that involved other types of religion issues in which Sotomayor joined the court's opinion were:

  • Friedman v. Clarkstown Central School District, 75 Fed. Appx. 815 (2003) [LEXIS link] (religious objection to required immunization);
  • Fifth Ave. Presbyterian Church v. City of New York, (2002) (use of church grounds as homeless shelter);
  • Rosario v. Does 1 to 10, 36 Fed. Appx. 25 (2002) [LEXIS link] (teacher dismissed for introducing religious material in classroom).
  • [UPDATE] Related opinions in Okwedy v. Molinari (1, 2) (Staten Island Borough president complains to billboard company about display of Biblical verses condmning homosexual behavior.) (Discussed at Volokh Conspiracy.)

Sotomayor wrote more extensively on religion clause matters as a federal district judge. Here is a survey of her religion opinions while on the Southern District of New York:

  • Mehdi v. United States Postal Service, 988 F. Supp. 721 (1997) [LEXIS link] (rejecting claim by Muslim plaintiffs that post offices must include crescent and star along with Christmas and Hanukkah decorations);
  • Moore v. Kennedy, 1996 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11474 (1996) (prisoner free exercise);
  • Miller v. New York State Department of Labor, 1996 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11067 (1996) (employment discrimination);
  • Utkor v. McElroy, 930 F. Supp. 881 (1996) [LEXIS link] (immigration asylum);
  • DiNapoli v. DiNapoli, 1995 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13778 (1995) (accusations against sibling, member of religious order, growing out of estate administration).
  • Rodriguez v. Coughlin, 1994 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5832 (1994) and Campos v. Coughlin, 854 F. Supp. 194 (1994) [LEXIS link] (preliminary injunction allowing Santeria prisoners to wear religious beads).
  • Flamer v. City of White Plains, 841 F. Supp. 1365 (1993) [LEXIS link] (enjoining city from preventing rabbi's placing of menorah in city park during Hanukkah).

UPDATE: Here is the White House press release and blog posting on the nomination. Here is the full text of the President's remarks on his choice. Orin Kerr on Volokh Conspiracy points out that if Sotomayor is confirmed, six of the nine Justices will be Catholic. Two are Jewish and Justice John Paul Stevens will be the only Protestant remaining on the Court. (Background data.)

UPDATE 2: The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday posted an interesting interview with Prof. Douglas Kmiec on how Judge Sotomayor's Catholic upbringing may have affected her judicial performance and decisions.