Sotomayor and Scalia

July 21st, 2009

Richard Cohen is one of my favorite columnists, not because I always agree with him but because it’s usually interesting to see what he has to say.  His column in The Washington Post on July 20 caught my attention because he compared Sonia Sotomayor, soon to warm a chair on the Supreme Court, and Antonin Scalia, who’s been there for a while.  Surprisingly, Cohen found more to praise in Scalia than in Sotomayor. 

From Cohen’s column:

A million lawyers in America, and Barack Obama chooses [Sotomayor] for the Supreme Court.

Don’t get me wrong. She is fully qualified. She is smart and learned and experienced and, in case you have not heard, a Hispanic, female nominee, of whom there have not been any since the dawn of our fair republic. But she has no cause, unless it is not to make a mistake, and has no passion, unless it is not to show any, and lacks intellectual brilliance, unless it is disguised under a veil of soporific competence until she takes her seat on the court. We shall see.

In the meantime, Sotomayor will do, and will do very nicely, as a personification of what ails the American left. She is, as everyone has pointed out, in the mainstream of American liberalism, a stream both intellectually shallow and preoccupied with the past. …

My admiration for Scalia is constrained by the fact that I frequently believe him to be wrong. But his thinking is often fresh, his writing is often bracing; and, more to my point, he has no counterpart on the left. His liberal and moderate brethren wallow in bromides; they can sometimes outvote him, but they cannot outthink him.

This is the sad state of both liberalism and American politics. First-class legal brains are not even nominated lest some senator break into hives at the prospect of encountering a genuinely new idea. The ceiling is further lowered by the need to season the court with diversity, a wonderful idea as long as brilliance is not compromised. The result has been the rout of sexism: The women are as mediocre as the men.

From all we know, Sotomayor is no Scalia. She is no Thurgood Marshall, either, or even a John Roberts, who is leading the court in his own direction. She will be confirmed. But if she is not, liberalism will not have lost much of a champion or a thinker.


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