Sotomayor Was Right on Utah v. Strieff Because She Articulated a Constitutional Principle, Not Because of Her Race
I wasn’t a fan of Sotomayor’s appointment to the Supreme Court, and what I found particularly disappointing about her nomination, aside from her judicial philosophy, was the furor of identity politics which surrounded it. Nothing has really caused me to reassess that stance, though I have no problem giving credit where it is due. Sotomayor was right to dissent in Utah v. Strieff, and the mostly conservative majority was wrong. Unfortunately, the hyperventilating coverage of her dissent from the political left is again myopically focused on identity politics.
The facts of the case were not in dispute. The stop of Strieff was acknowledged by all to be illegal. The question was whether, upon happening to find an outstanding warrant, any evidence uncovered during the stop would then be admissible. The majority said it would. I find this troubling, and think it severely undermines Fourth Amendment protections by not punishing officers for undertaking illegal searches.
Sotomayor, along with Ginsburg and Kagan, were in the minority. One passage of Sotomayor’s dissent, not joined by the others, has gotten particular attention. It reads:
[T]his case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time. It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged. We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are “isolated.” They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. See L. Guinier & G. Torres, The Miner’s Canary 274–283 (2002). They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.
Aside from the vague social justice-y “until their voices matter” bit, which has no legal or policy meaning that I can deduce, I think she’s generally on the money. The leftwing coverage of the matter, however, has been atrocious.
Ethan Epstein at the Weekly Standard (I don’t know what his/the magazine’s opinion of the decision is, though I suspect it’s not the same as my own) accurately captures the vacuousness of much of the leftist coverage in his mocking headline, “You Won’t Believe What Happened When Justice Sotomayor Dissented.”
It’s not just the clickbait-style breathlessness of their coverage which is so exasperating, but also the weird fixation on Sotomayor’s personal characteristics instead of the quality of her opinion. The Nation, before changing its headline (hopefully due to realizing how stupid it was), declared “Sonia Sotomayor’s Epic Dissent Shows Why We Need People of Color on the Supreme Court.” (For those keeping track, “People of Color” is the current approved nomenclature, though it will no doubt be rotated out soon enough). The New Republic assessed, “Sonia Sotomayor just showed the value of having a ‘wise Latina’ on the court.” This apparent obsession is worth noting because it can lead to false conclusions on how to reach better judicial decisions.
Insofar as Sotomayor’s got it right, it was due not to her race but her defense of the clear intent of a key Constitutional protection. She is not, after all, the only minority on the court, and her fellow “POC” voted with the other side. In my original critique of the boosters of Sotomayor’s appointment, I noted how the reverence to identity is inconsistent, employed by the left when it serves ideological interests and tossed aside when it does not. They certainly have never respected the “lived experience” of Clarence Thomas.
To the point, if we want a SCOTUS more consistent in its defense of individual rights, it will not come from appointments based on whatever personal characteristics happen to be the most important according to the identity politics of the day. It will come through recognizing the proper role of the Court as a patrolman on the border of governmental power, a last safeguard against the persistent encroachment of state authority on individual rights through enforcement of clear Constitutional limits.