Q: What percentage of Sonia Sotomayor’s opinions have been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court?
A: Of the majority opinions that Judge Sonia Sotomayor has authored since becoming an appellate judge in 1998, three of them have been overturned by the Supreme Court.
Our search for appellate opinions by Sotomayor on the LexisNexis database returned 232 cases. That’s a reversal rate of 1.3 percent.
But only five of her decisions have been reviewed by the justices. Using five as a denominator, the rate comes out to 60 percent.
We have contacted Rush Limbaugh to ask how he came up with the figure he used recently when he said, "She has been overturned 80 percent by the Supreme Court." We’ll update this item if we receive a response. (See our May 29 update at the end for how Limbaugh may have calculated his 80 percent figure, and why we judge it to be mistaken.) In the week before President Barack Obama announced that he would nominate Sotomayor, the conservative Judicial Confirmation Network ran an Internet ad saying she had a "100 percent reversal rate," which is false. (We asked that group for back-up material, which a spokesman agreed to give us but which we never received; since Obama’s announcement, the group has taken the ad down.)
In any case, 60 percent of the cases the Supreme Court has reviewed is not a particularly high number. In any given term, the Supreme Court normally reverses a higher percentage of the cases it hears. During its 2006-2007 term, for instance, the Court reversed or vacated (which, for our purposes here, mean the same thing) 68 percent of the cases before it. The rate was 73.6 percent the previous term.
In two of the three Sotomayor reversals, at least some of the more liberal justices dissented, agreeing with her holding.
- One was a 5-4 decision in 2001 in Correctional Services Corporation v. Malesko, which involved an inmate who sought to sue a private contractor operating a halfway house on behalf of the Bureau of Prisons over injuries he sustained. Sotomayor said he could, but a majority of the justices disagreed.
- In another case, Sotomayor wrote that under the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency could not use a cost-benefit analysis to determine the best technology available for drawing cooling water into power plants with minimal impact on aquatic life. By a vote of 6-3 this year, the Supreme Court ruled otherwise in Entergy v. Riverkeeper.
- The third reversal, in 2005, was a unanimous 8-0 decision in the case Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc. v. Dabit. Sotomayor had written that a class action securities suit brought in state court by a broker/stockholder was not preempted by the 1998 Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act. But the high court’s opinion said it "would be odd, to say the least" if the law contained the exception that Sotomayor said it did.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule by the end of June on the much-discussed Ricci v. DeStefano case in which Sotomayor took part. It’s not publicly known whether she wrote the unsigned, one-paragraph order in the reverse discrimination case involving firefighters in New Haven, Conn., to which all three of the judges hearing the case agreed. (That order later became an official opinion with the same wording at the behest of other 2nd Circuit judges.) The decision, upholding the ruling of the lower-court judge who first heard the case, said the city was justified in not certifying the results of an exam required for firefighters to be promoted after no African Americans scored highly enough to be considered.
(Note: We haven’t analyzed cases in which Sotomayor merely voted with the majority, only those in which she is on record as having written the majority opinion. She also may have written some unsigned opinions or orders, such as the one in the Ricci case above, but we have no way of knowing if that’s true or if so, how many she may have written.)
Update, May 29: We wrote above that we didn’t know how Rush Limbaugh had calculated that Sotomayor “has been overturned 80 percent by the Supreme Court.” Since we posted, however, an alert reader has pointed us to something else Limbaugh said in the same May 26 show:
Rush Limbaugh: The Supreme Court has reversed Judge Sotomayor in four instances where it granted certiorari to review an opinion she authored. "In three of these reversals, the Court held that Judge Sotomayor erred in her statutory interpretation," meaning she goofed up on the law. She was overturned four times when she wrote the opinion, the lead opinion, and in three of the four cases the Supreme Court held that she erred in her statutory interpretation. The cases are Knight v. C.I.R., Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc. v. Dabit, New York Times, Inc. v. Tasini, and Correctional Servs. Corp. v. Malesko. The cases are 2008, 2006, 2001, and 2001. So there you have it.
Four out of five – as we noted above, Sotomayor has had five appellate decisions reviewed by the Supreme Court – is 80 percent. But Limbaugh is wrong on his cases, and thus wrong in his calculation. First, in Knight v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, Sotomayor’s decision wasn’t “overturned” at all. In fact, it was upheld unanimously, though the justices faulted her reasoning.
Second, New York Times v. Tasini was one of Sotomayor’s 442 rulings as a district court judge. Limbaugh is correct that the Supreme Court upheld the appellate court ruling that had reversed her decision.
But we have not dived into her lower court jurisprudence, as opposed to her appellate majority opinions, nor have we seen a reliable analysis of it done by anyone else. We don’t know how many of her decisions in district court were appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, or what their disposition was. And third, Limbaugh didn’t include Entergy v. Riverkeeper, which was a clear reversal by the justices. Eliminating the cases Limbaugh shouldn’t have included and adding back in the one he should have brings us back to 60 percent.
Riverkeeper, Inc. v. EPA, Nos. 04-6692-ag(L) et al. 2d Cir., 25 Jan 2007.
Dabit v. Merrill Lynch, Nos. 03-7499 and 03-7458. 2d Cir., 11 Jan 2005.
Ricci v. DeStefano, No. 06-4996-cv. 2d Cir., 9 June 2008.
Malesko v. Correctional Services Corp., No. 99-7995. 2d Cir., 6 Oct 2000.
Correctional Services Corp. v. Malesko, No. 00-860. Supreme Ct. of the US, 27 Nov 2001.
Entergy Corp. v. Riverkeeper, Inc. Nos. 07-588, 07-589 and 07-597. Supreme Ct. of the US, 1 Apr 2009..
Merrill Lynch v. Dabit, No. 04-1371. Supreme Ct. of the US, 21 Mar 2006.