Will Sotomayor add to SCOTUS' pro-business supermajority?

The Chamber of Commerce endorses the judge, another sign she might not be so liberal in at least one area

Published July 23, 2009 7:30PM (EDT)

When it comes to evaluating how a Supreme Court nominee will vote if confirmed, the country tends to apply a pretty simple rule: For Roe, or against?

I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. Though it’s common to speak of liberal and conservative wings of the Court, usually we're just lining the justices up, left to right, based on where they stand on social issues. Abortion tends to be the foremost subject, or at least subtext, of a confirmation hearing. This time, as it happens, it was affirmative action, with a little bit of gun control thrown in.

What we tend to lose track of, in trying to figure out where Judge Sonia Sotomayor falls on the political spectrum is that the Supreme Court doesn’t only rule on social and cultural issues. Businesses, consumers and organized labor take their battles to the Nine all the time, and the much-noted five-to-four split on the Court doesn’t really apply to those cases. Justices we regularly refer to as liberals quite often end up in majorities with their conservative counterparts, ruling for the corporate party (usually, in these cases, the defendant).

So it seems noteworthy that the Chamber of Commerce today endorsed Sotomayor. The judge’s business rulings have received some examination in the press thus far, but the result is a bit ambiguous. One prominent ruling allowed a massive class-action suit to proceed against Visa and MasterCard. In 1999, she upheld a $1.25 million award to a victim of sex discrimination and retaliatory harassment. But she sided with Boeing in a lawsuit over the crash of TWA flight 800, and she’s voted both for and against Merrill Lynch in separate cases. She decided that a rule allow plaintiffs to sue the government also exposed government contractors to lawsuit, but ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency had overstepped in a cost-benefit analysis case centering on fish protection.

You can find legal analysts saying that “American business should shudder in its boots” at the prospect of a Justice Sotomayor. You can find legal analysts saying, “There's nothing in her record that suggests she's ... hostile to business.” Mainly, the consensus seems to be that she can’t be pigeonholed, but probably won't alter the court's generally pro-business stance.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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