The press, Sotomayor and Ricci

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Like the sun coming up in the East, this one we saw coming a mile away.

The Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the white firefighter from New Haven, CT. Five of the nine justices agreed that the firefighters "were unfairly denied promotions because of their race." It's a big deal because, as the WashPost, notes, the decision "revers[es] a decision that high court nominee Sonia Sotomayor endorsed as an appeals court judge.

Not only was the reversal a foregone conclusion, but so too, was the narrative now being played out in the press. The press and Republicans (notice how they work in tandem) have been touting this reversal for weeks, hyping it as a potentially "embarrassing" reversal, which would (supposedly) raise all kind of doubts about Sotomayor's smarts and her ability as a judge.

And trust us, this meme is already being hammered and will likely continue throughout the week: Sotomayor was reversed--she got smacked down--by the Supreme Court! It's a huge deal.

Except, of course, it is not. Judges get reversed everyday. In fact, the system of American jurisprudence is built upon the idea of judges getting reversed. It happens all the time. And yes, the Supreme Court reverses judges all the time. But only now, in the case of Sotomayor, is the press pretending that that reversal is a singular rebuke; that it's a mark of shame for Sotomayor because she got the case wrong.

Let's take a step or two back and just look at how idiotic a premise this is: Because five of the nine SCOTUS justices ruled to reverse the case, Sotomayor ought to be ashamed because she got the case all wrong. But what about the four Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of Sotomayor's Ricci's ruling, should they also be embarrassed because they got the case 'wrong'? Should we question their qualifications for the highest court in the country?

Do you see the absurdity? The press and Republicans are peddling this completely novel notion that reversal = shame.

For instance, go back to Gore v. Bush, which was ruled 5-4. Should the four justices who ruled in the minority be ridiculed because they got the case 'wrong'? And should members of the Florida Supreme Court whose Gore v. Bush ruling was overturned still be ashamed about their decision? (If history is the judge, I'd argue the five SCOTUS justices who voted in favor of Gore v. Bush ought to be the ones who are ashamed.)

Meaning, there is not precedent in American law for automatically declaring that whenever a judge, or a panel of judges, is reversed by SCOTUS, that that means they got the case wrong; that they misinterpreted the law. It means, SCOTUS, more often for partisan reasons, came to a different conclusion and had the votes to reverse. Period.

The Daily Howler saw this meme coming weeks ago, and wrote:

It's entirely possible that the Court will reverse the New Haven decision narrowly—by a 5-4 vote. Will that mean that the Court's four dissenters "got it wrong"—that they should perhaps leave the Court in disgrace? In fact, courts split on such cases all the time; no one except an upper-end pundit is so unsophisticated as to assume that the five-vote majority must surely be "right," and the four-vote minority must therefore be "wrong." No one actually thinks that way—except the slumbering, withered minds which comprise our celebrity press corps.

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