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Social Issues Dominate Confirmation Process, But Not Docket

By Jerry Markon
The growing debate over Sonia Sotomayor’s views on abortion and other sensitive social issues, typical of recent Supreme Court confirmation battles, obscures an important fact: they're not what Supreme Court justices usually decide.

In fact, Sotomayor is far more likely to be immersed in the complex and important – but sometimes dull – business or criminal law cases if she makes it to the high court, legal experts say.

“Most of the cases the justices take are not the hot-button cases,’’ said Richard Friedman, a University of Michigan law professor who is an authority on the Supreme Court. “They are significant and of interest to people within their fields, but the average lay people on the street would have to scratch their heads and think ‘why is this important?’’’

Without question, cases involving abortion, race or same-sex marriage that do find their way to the court would prove politically charged and potentially divisive. The justices are fundamentally split on abortion, for example, and abortion rights supporters think Roe v. Wade – which legalized the practice nationwide – survives today with the support of the court’s four liberals.

Among them is David H. Souter, the justice Sotomayor would succeed.

But in Friedman’s view, abortion “has tended to dominate debate over the last few Supreme Court nominees, and it’s all out of proportion to the role it plays in the actual work of the Supreme Court.’’

The case can be made, so to speak, by reviewing the 29 cases the court has accepted for the October term. President Obama wants Sotomayor seated by then.

The docket is dominated by criminal law and business cases – half are criminal law alone. Some are high-profile, such as a review of media magnate Conrad Black’s conviction for mail fraud and obstruction of justice and a challenge to the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the centerpiece of the government's response to accounting scandals at Enron and Worldcom.

A scant few cases touch on hot-button social issues. And there’s not an abortion case to be found.

By Paul Volpe  |  June 2, 2009; 2:31 PM ET
Categories:  Supreme Court  
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