Pulpit Bulls

Policy, Politics, and What's In Between

Sotomayor a Lackluster Wordsmith?

Posted by Eric on June 7, 2009

Last week, Stephanie Mencimer penned a smart Mother Jones article on Sonia Sotomayor’s way with words. Although impressed with her intellect and accomplishments — and still confident in her ability to do the job — Mencimer worries that her prose may not be on par with some of the court’s heavy weights:

The court’s influence and lasting legacy is what it commits to paper. Sotomayor may be a force of nature in the courtroom, where she’s said to shine, but it’s hard to imagine her going head to head in print with, say, Antonin Scalia. The conservative justice is the master of the wicked one-liner and, while something of a smart aleck, he influences the public debate on so many issues because of his writing—whether he’s in the majority or dissenting and whether he’s right or wrong. Scalia’s opinions are cited in leading constitutional law casebooks more than any other sitting justice. In the 2002 case Republican Party v. White, for instance, he quipped, “campaign promises are—by long democratic tradition—the least binding form of human commitment.”

Because of the subjective nature of jurisprudence, it is incredibly important to have well-written opinions; a precedent articulated forcefully will be much more persuasive when future courts look towards the ruling. In that regard, you would expect that this would make conservatives more receptive to her nomination while giving liberals some pause, but of course it won’t play out that way.

On a tangential note, I will say I’m a bit surprised that justices still write their own opinions. Nobody minds that the president has a team of speechwriters and I doubt anyone would be shocked to learn that most Senators and Representatives don’t author their floor speeches, and none of them write their press releases or constituent letters. Presumably respected justices have clerks with quality phrase-turning skills, so why don’t they get them in on drafting the language of their judicial decisions?

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