Steamboat Springs On her fourth and final day of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor continued to emphasize a judge's responsibility to apply the law to the facts, rather than make political decisions.
That sounds great theoretically, The New York Times' Supreme Court reporter Adam Liptak told a Steamboat Springs audience Thursday evening, but we have reason to be skeptical.
Liptak spoke at the first installment of this year's Seminars at Steamboat lecture series. He said the Supreme Court grew markedly more polarized in its most recent term, with conservative and liberal justices lining up against one another in 5-4 and 6-3 votes in about half of the court's decisions.
If the justices are objectively applying the law to the facts, Liptak said, "then why do they keep doing it in a predictably different way?"
Liptak said the court under Chief Justice John Roberts is beginning to come of age and find its identity, which is a conservative one. Justices Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito "appear ready to move," Liptak said.
"The question is whether the swing justice, Anthony Kennedy, is ready to move with them."
Liptak noted that Kennedy voted in the majority 95 percent of the time in the most recent term and sided with the conservatives in about twice as many cases. Because Sotomayor will replace liberal Justice David Souter if confirmed by the Senate, she will not tip the balance of the court, Liptak said. And because liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens are the most likely to retire next, President Barack Obama may not get a chance to swing the court to the left, Liptak said.
Asked by an audience member if it is a flaw that the court is trending right at a time when the nation as whole seems to be drifting left, Liptak said the framers of the Constitution probably intended for the court to be a "lagging indicator."
"That probably was part of the framers' vision," he said. "What the framers probably didn't envision is how long people would live."
Although Sotomayor may not turn the tide of the court, Liptak said history shows that as a woman and the court's first Hispanic justice, she will "have an impact just by showing up."
Liptak said the court's first black justice, Thurgood Marshall, forced the court to think differently about race issues.
"If Thurgood Marshall is in the room, you're not going to speak the same way about matters of race and law," Liptak said.
Liptak attended Yale University where he later got his law degree. He practiced law for 15 years before joining the Times as legal reporter, and he's covered the Supreme Court beat for about a year.
Bob Stein said Liptak was "uniquely qualified by both experience and journalistic temperament" to lead Thursday's discussion, titled "The Roberts Supreme Court in the Obama Era." Stein is on the board of the Seminars at Steamboat and arranged for Liptak to participate in the series.
Liptak also discussed the customs and procedures of the court, major decisions from the previous term, his personal opinion that cameras should be allowed in the court, and Roberts' use of Bob Dylan lyrics in one of his written opinions.
Other speakers in this summer's series are former U.S. Rep. Phil Sharp, president of Resources for the Future, on Aug. 6; Paul Tagliabue, former National Football League commissioner, on Aug. 13; and Alice Rivlin, the first director of the Congressional Budget Office and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, on Aug. 20.
Seminars Chairman John Worthen said the purpose of the seminars is "to engage this community in discussion and dialogue on important policy issues." Each seminar is free and held at Strings Music Pavilion.