December 8th, 2009
04:03 PM ET
8 months ago

Justice Sotomayor issues high court's first ruling of the term

ALT TEXT

The newest justice had the honor of issuing the Supreme Court's first ruling of the term. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Washington (CNN) - The newest justice had the honor of issuing the Supreme Court's first ruling of the term, and Sonia Sotomayor managed a shy smile Tuesday after reading a portion of it from the bench in the public session.

Sotomayor joined the bench in August and has heard oral argument in 35 appeals with her eight colleagues. The high court issued three other rulings Tuesday, from cases heard when the new term began in early October.

Chief Justice John Roberts announced Sotomayor's name at the start of the morning session, and she proceeded to spend about four minutes summarizing the court's unanimous conclusions.

At issue in her ruling was the right to immediately appeal a judge's pretrial order requiring disclosure of confidential attorney-client communications.

The case involved Norman Carpenter, who sued his employer, Mohawk Industries, after he was fired. Carpenter contends he complained to company officials they were hiring undocumented immigrant workers at the Georgia flooring facility. He was unaware the company was accused in a pending lawsuit to conspiring to drive down wages by knowingly hiring illegal workers. Carpenter claims one of Mohawk's lawyers pressured him to recant his claims, but he refused, and was fired under false pretenses.

In the discovery phase of his lawsuit, Carpenter sought documents and other information from his meeting with the lawyer. A federal judge said the material was normally protected by attorney-client privilege– but that Mohawk had waived that privilege through statements and other disclosures in the other undocumented workers case. That decision allowed the lawsuit to proceed to trial.

Sotomayor spoke for a 9-0 court when concluding the federal judge's order releasing the documents to Carpenter could not be immediately appealed to a higher court. She said prior Supreme Court rulings have affirmed the idea that appeals should be deferred until final judgment by a trial court.

"In our estimation," she wrote "post-judgment appeals generally suffice to protect the rights of litigants and assure the vitality of the attorney-client privilege. Appellate courts can remedy the improper disclosure of privileged material in the same way they remedy a host of other erroneous evidentiary rulings: by vacating an adverse judgment and remanding for a new trial in which the protected material and its fruits are excluded from evidence."

The case drew some interest from civil liberty groups after the Obama administration filed a brief supporting Carpenter. In the last five pages of its "friend-of-the-court" brief, Justice Department lawyers argued in part for an expansive view of executive power on the "state secrets privilege."

That was not a direct issue in the Mohawk case, but the federal government thought enough parallels existed to reinforce its belief the state secrets privilege is grounded in a constitutional guarantee.

Such a view was strongly promoted by the conservative Bush administration, particularly in cases involving the ongoing war on terror, but liberals expressed disappointment that the current White House chose to echo the views of its predecessors.

The state secrets privilege allows the government at the evidentiary stage of a civil case to exclude what it deems sensitive information that might endanger national security. Such information might be of a military or
intelligence-gathering nature, and courts generally show deference to the views of the executive branch in such matters.

The privilege has been used to block lawsuits from going forward over the government's alleged domestic surveillance of communications between those suspected of terrorist involvement, and the overseas detention of accused terrorists. A range of legal and advocacy groups have criticized the government for what they call abuse of power and an unchecked executive.

The issue was not raised during October's oral arguments in the Mohawk case, and Sotomayor decided not to address the controversy in her ruling.

The case is Mohawk Industries Inc. v. Carpenter (08-678).


Filed under: Sonia Sotomayor • Supreme Court
soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Dutch/BadNewz, VA

    I knew she would fit in fine as a SCOTUS. Now we just need to get Thomas and Alito out of there.

    December 8, 2009 04:12 pm at 4:12 pm |
  2. Luke Brown

    Justice Sotomayor is terrific. Too bad she has to waste that great intellect on a Court with so many right-wing morons.

    December 8, 2009 05:09 pm at 5:09 pm |
  3. Terry from West Texas

    There are still five Conservative party hacks on the court who will give any contested presidential election to the Republican nominee, just like they did in 2000.

    I know I know. You Conservatives say, "You lost! Get over it!"

    What you should be saying is, "We stole it. Get over it! It's what we do!"

    December 8, 2009 05:09 pm at 5:09 pm |
  4. Independent Lilarose, Bandon, Oregon

    Good luck, Sonia, in your new job.

    Now we need to make sure the Supreme Court is made up of 53% women, which represents the female population in the United States.

    Two ain't good enough for me!

    December 8, 2009 05:36 pm at 5:36 pm |
  5. Jane/Seattle

    OK ruling here, But...

    Telecommunications firms protected by the Bush Regime and now the Obama Regime? WARS of Choice continued, Financial bailouts for rich crooks, and more showing the truths of just who runs this Criminal Country! Please, now this is the important issue ignored! A Constitutional student ignoring the intent of the Founding Fathers by taking rights not really granted, but manipulated by generations of gradual, incremental changes almost imperceptible to so many?! Activist judges? Now this crew is the True Activist Court and Bush stacked it well in Roberts – a young guy we'll have to tolerate for some long time, unless we get lucky and fate intervenes! The Operative word for these folks is MAJORITY. What is best to insure rights for this majority of citizens? Very Old idea: The Code Of Hammurabi: Government's Role is to protect the powerless from the Powerful. Now that would be a real Change I would believe in! We'll see, but I doubt that we are wrong on this call!

    December 8, 2009 05:36 pm at 5:36 pm |
  6. File under "Sarcasm"

    So they gave the rookie a unanimous decision to read. It's like the ceremonial first pitch at the ball game.

    And to the left wing loons on this commentary moaning about the terrible conservatives on the court, you conveniently either overlooked the fact that Sotomayor agreed with them or you don't know what "unanimous" means.

    December 8, 2009 05:39 pm at 5:39 pm |