In criminal-law matters, Sotomayor in the center
A review of her record as an appellate judge finds she largely sided with the government.
WASHINGTON - Before her Supreme Court nomination, Sonia Sotomayor put some crooks in prison and cut others some slack.
She has confronted killers and empowered police. She has also sympathized with inmates and challenged prosecutors. While tilting liberal in some areas, Sotomayor's five years in the Manhattan District Attorney's Office and 17 years on the federal bench appear to place her near the center in criminal-law matters.
"She's a moderate," said Judge Guido Calabresi, a colleague on the New York-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
Like her colleagues, Sotomayor has faced her share of sketchy prisoner appeals and complaints about lengthy sentences. More often than not, she has agreed with the government's position. On substantive law enforcement powers, too, she has pleased police with rulings that, for instance, have upheld certain warrantless searches.
A McClatchy Newspapers review of Sotomayor's appellate decision-making reveals her criminal-law inclinations. Of 90 criminal-law-related cases considered by an appellate panel on which Sotomayor has served since January 2002, she has sided with the government 65 times, and with prisoners and defendants 25 times.
More telling may be the company she keeps.
Whether ruling for prosecutors and prison officials or for inmates and defendants, Sotomayor has nearly always been in the majority. Among the cases McClatchy reviewed, she dissented on a defendant's behalf only once. Overall, she's a team player on criminal-law matters - undercutting one potential Republican line of attack.
"She's the opposite of an activist judge," Calabresi said.
Criminal-law matters account for only a portion of the 75 or so cases considered annually by the Supreme Court. Among politicians and members of the public, though, these can be the most incendiary. Consequently, Sotomayor's service as an assistant district attorney in New York beginning in 1979 started her inoculation against potential soft-on-crime charges.
"There, Sonia learned what crime can do to a family and a community, and what it takes to fight it," President Obama said.
Sotomayor says she focused on "street crimes, i.e., murders [and] robberies," though she also went after others. In 1983, for instance, she successfully prosecuted New York-area residents Clemente D'Alessio and Scott Hyman for selling pornographic films featuring children as young as 7. That same year, she won a murder conviction for a high-profile Harlem killer named Richard Maddicks, who is now serving a term of more than 67 years.
"I appeared almost daily in court as a prosecutor," Sotomayor told the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1992.
During her subsequent six-year stint as a U.S. District Court judge, Sotomayor started showing more nuance than that of a "street crimes" avenger.
In 1995, for instance, a man named Wlodek Jan Lech, who was convicted of bribery and conspiracy, sought to sanction federal prosecutors who had kept secret information that would have helped the defense. Sotomayor agreed that prosecutors' actions were "disturbing" and "astonishing," and said she was "placing them on notice" that a recurrence could bring more serious consequences. Nonetheless, she sustained the prosecution's case.
Two years earlier, Sotomayor voiced anguish in sentencing a nonviolent first-time offender named Louis Gomez to a mandatory minimum of five years - but her dismay didn't stop the punishment.
"This is one more example of an abomination being committed," she told Gomez. "You do not deserve this, sir. I am deeply sorry for you and your family, but . . . I have no choice."
Asked about the episode in her 1997 appellate court confirmation hearing, Sotomayor stressed that she "imposed what the law required" even though she would have preferred "a different result."
An appellate court reversed or found errors in six of Sotomayor's trial court rulings, out of about 450 cases she presided over. None of the problematic rulings involved criminal-law matters.