Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Sotomayer: "Procedure" over Innocence

As one who came into blogging because the State of North Carolina and Michael B. Nifong decided to pursue false charges against three Duke University lacrosse players, I am especially sensitive to situations in which people are falsely convicted in the American "justice" system. There is nothing worse that can happen in the pursuit of "justice" than for the state to finger and then convict an innocent person, and it happens too often.

I turn to the recent nomination of Sonya Sotomayer to the U.S. Supreme Court, whom President Obama nominated in large part -- and let's admit it -- to her Hispanic identity. Furthermore, we have Sotomayer herself claiming that being a "wise Latina woman" gives her special insight into the law and how it is applied.

Thus, I was interested to know how she viewed situations in which police and prosecutors railroad innocent people into prison. Would her background as a "wise Latina woman" make her especially sensitive to such things; after all, African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely to meet that fate. Unfortunately, we have our answer, and it seems that the "wise Latina woman" is pretty much like her white counterparts: Deadlines don't matter for me, but they do for thee.

Jeffrey Deskovic spent 16 years in a New York prison for something he did not do. That is not unusual in the Empire State, where police and prosecutorial corruption is the order of the day. (Just ask Martin Tankleff, who spent 17 years in prison for a double-murder he did not commit. Innocence means nothing in New York.)

Deskovic was unlucky enough to have police coerce a confession from him at age 16 (they also coerced a confession from Tankleff). People often think that a confession trumps everything else, but it is not unusual for people to give false confessions, especially when police are putting on the screws.

The problem for Deskovic was that he filed his appeal four days too late because a clerk had given his attorney the wrong date. That mistake was enough for Sotomayer to turn down his request; according to the New York Times:

Ms. Sotomayor, along with the other judge on the panel, ruled that the lawyer’s mistake did not “rise to the level of an extraordinary circumstance” that would compel them to forgive the delay.
You have to keep this in perspective. During the 2000 Florida recount, the Florida Supreme Court said that deadlines set by law did not matter, and that they amounted to a "hyper-sensitive" view of law. When Robert Toricelli resigned his position in the U.S. Senate during the election and the Democrats faced not being able to run a new candidate because the deadline for filing had long passed, the New Jersey Supreme Court (dominated by Democrats) declared that in that circumstance, the law really did not matter and paved the way for their favored candidate to enter the election and win.

I suspect that Sotomayer approved both decisions. After all, she is a partisan Democrat and I don't recall reading or hearing anything from her to the contrary. To be sure, I cannot know her opinions on these issues but from what I have read -- or not read -- I don't think that there exactly was a groundswell of dissent from Democratic judges.

So, when it comes to politicians and elections, the law is whatever judges want it to be at the time. However, when the situation is about someone being wrongfully convicted, well, deadlines trump innocence.

To me, this speaks volumes about Sotomayer. Keep in mind that I have not attacked her on the grounds of her Identity Politics, although they have bothered me. I believe that President Obama can pick someone he wants to be on the court, and I am sure that she has the qualifications to serve on the High Court.

However, when judges declare that legal deadlines for politicians are arbitrary, but that deadlines trump evidence of innocence in a possible wrongful conviction, then I cannot support them under any circumstances. What Sotomayer did was wrong and immoral, and if her attitude toward innocent people is to let them rot in prison, then I hope she is not confirmed. Having said that, her confirmation is already predetermined, and everyone knows that.

Given such a state of affairs, I do hope that someone on the Senate Judiciary Committee asks her about this horrible decision to let an innocent man rot in prison. Unfortunately, I doubt seriously that anyone will broach that subject, and that is too bad.


Marco2006 said...

Such is the reality of those who believe in a "Living" Constitution. More honestly they believe in making "policy" from the bench when the law does not back up their political beliefs. The role of Judges is quite clear, follow the laws of the legislative branch. Sotomayer is just another want-to-be legislator who will impose her will on us.

FDR tried to pack the Supreme Court, will Obama? More diversity & empathy, less common law.

Anonymous said...

If the members of the judiciary comittee really took their jobs seriously, then they would demand that the chairman Pat Leahy, reschedule the confirmation hearings instead of his rush to hold them in July - when the Congress is supposed to be tackling the health care initiative of Obama. However, in another case where deadlines are whatever one wants to make them, we have the Democrats rushing through the confirmation process. It is not as if there is an immediate vacancy - I am certain that Obama could convince Souter to remain on the court until his replacement has been confirmed.

William Newmiller said...

Thanks for an excellent commentary. When judges narrow their field of view as Sotomayor did in the Deskovic case, there's little room for the kind of wisdom Sotomayor herself says she espouses. And as Jeffery Deskovic discovered, justice, too, is squeezed out.

Chris Halkides said...


It is disappointing that even liberal justices seem blind to the problem of wrongful convictions. Thanks for bringing this to everyone's attention.