Sonia Sotomayor Should Retire Now

On Election Day in 2006, Justice Antonin Scalia was 70 years old and had been serving on the Supreme Court for 20 years. That year would have been an opportune time for him to retire—Republicans held the White House and the Senate, and they could have confirmed a young conservative justice who likely would have held the seat for decades to come. Instead, he tried to stay on the Court until the next time a Republican president would have a clear shot to nominate and confirm a conservative successor.

He didn’t make it—he died unexpectedly in February 2016, at the age of 79, while Barack Obama was president. Conservatives nevertheless engineered some good fortune: There was divided control of government, and then–Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to even hold confirmation hearings for Merrick Garland, Obama’s nominee to the seat. Donald Trump won that fall’s election and named Neil Gorsuch to the seat that McConnell had held open.

But imagine for a moment that Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election, as many expected. By running a few points stronger, she might have taken Democratic candidates across the finish line in close races in Pennsylvania and Missouri, resulting in Democratic control of the Senate. In that scenario, Clinton would have named a liberal successor to Scalia—more liberal than Garland—and conservatives would have lost control of the Court, all because of Scalia’s failure to retire at the opportune moment.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor will turn 70 in June. If she retires this year, President Joe Biden will nominate a young and reliably liberal judge to replace her. Republicans do not control the Senate floor and cannot force the seat to be held open like they did when Scalia died. Confirmation of the new justice will be a slam dunk, and liberals will have successfully shored up one of their seats on the Court—playing the kind of defense that is smart and prudent when your only hope of controlling the Court again relies on both the timing of the death or retirement of conservative judges and not losing your grip on the three seats you already hold.

But if Sotomayor does not retire this year, we don’t know when she will next be able to retire with a likely liberal replacement. It’s possible that Democrats will retain the presidency and the Senate in this year’s elections, in which case the insurance created by a Sotomayor retirement won’t have been necessary. But if Democrats lose the presidency or the Senate this fall—or both—she’ll need to stay on the bench until the party once again controls them. That could be just a few years, or it could be longer. Democrats have previously had to wait as long as 14 years (1995 to 2009). In other words, if Sotomayor doesn’t retire this year, she’ll be making a bet that she will remain fit to serve until possibly age 78 or even 82 or 84—and she’ll be forcing the whole Democratic Party to make that high-stakes bet with her.

If Democrats lose the bet, the Court’s 6–3 conservative majority will turn into a 7–2 majority at some point within the next decade. If they win the bet, what do they win? They win the opportunity to read dissents written by Sotomayor instead of some other liberal justice. This is obviously an insane trade. Democrats talk a lot about the importance of the Court and the damage that has been done since it has swung in a more conservative direction, most obviously including the end of constitutional protections for abortion rights. So why aren’t Democrats demanding Sotomayor’s retirement?

Well, they are whispering about it. Politico reported in January:

Some Democrats close to the Biden administration and high-profile lawyers with past White House experience spoke to West Wing Playbook on condition of anonymity about their support for Sotomayor’s retirement. But none would go on the record about it. They worried that publicly calling for the first Latina justice to step down would appear gauche or insensitive. Privately, they say Sotomayor has provided an important liberal voice on the court, even as they concede that it would be smart for the party if she stepped down before the 2024 election.

This is incredibly gutless. You’re worried about putting control of the Court completely out of reach for more than a generation, but because she is Latina, you can’t hurry along an official who’s putting your entire policy project at risk? If this is how the Democratic Party operates, it deserves to lose.

The cowardice in speaking up about Sotomayor—a diabetic who has in some instances traveled with a medic—is part of a broader insanity in the way that the Democratic Party thinks about diversity and representation. Representation is supposed to be important because the presence of different sorts of people in positions of power helps ensure that the interests and preferences of various communities are taken into account when making policy. But in practice, Democratic Party actions regarding diversity tend to be taken for the benefit of officials rather than demographic groups. What’s more important for ordinary Latina women who support Democrats—that there not be one more vote against abortion rights on the Supreme Court, or that Sotomayor is personally there to write dissenting opinions? The answer is obvious, unless you work in Democratic politics for a living, in which case it apparently becomes a difficult call.

I thought Democrats had learned a lesson from the Ruth Bader Ginsburg episode about the importance of playing defense on a Court where you don’t hold the majority. Building a cult of personality around one particular justice served to reinforce the idea that it was reasonable for her to stay on the bench far into old age, and her unfortunate choice to do so ultimately led to Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment and a string of conservative policy victories. All liberals have to show for this stubbornness is a bunch of dissents and kitsch home decor. In 2021, it seemed that liberals had indeed learned their lesson—not only was there a well-organized effort to hound the elderly Stephen Breyer out of office, but the effort was quite rude. (I’m not sure screaming “Retire, bitch” at Stephen Breyer was strictly necessary, but I wasn’t bothered by it either—he was a big boy, and he could take it.) But I guess maybe the lesson was learned only for instances where the justice in question is a white man.

One obvious response to this argument is that the president is also old—much older, indeed, than Sonia Sotomayor. I am aware, and I consider this to be a serious problem. But Democrats are unlikely to find a way to replace Biden with a younger candidate who enhances their odds of winning the election. The Sotomayor situation is different. Her age problem can be dealt with very simply by her retiring and the president picking a candidate to replace her who is young and broadly acceptable (maybe even exciting) to Democratic Party insiders. And if Democrats want to increase the odds of getting there, they should be saying in public that she should step down. In order to do that, they’ll have to get over their fear of being called racist or sexist or ageist.

This article was adapted from a post on Josh Barro’s Substack, Very Serious.

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