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Empathy and Activism: A Look at Senator Cornyn’s Own Judicial Record

July 16th, 2009 No comments

During the Sotomayor hearings, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas has been among the most aggressive questioners. He seems particularly overwrought about the nominee’s statements that her experience as a Latina would somehow affect, or even improve, her decision-making. (Of course, the would-be justice has run as far from those comments as possible.) He and other conservatives also worry about “activist judges” who “legislate from the bench.” It’s amazing he can express these concerns without blushing.

As I noted when this issue broke, there are several ways to interpret the “wise Latina” comment. The most benign is that all of us are a product of our environment and experience; our empathy should be for all litigants, but we’re not, and shouldn’t pretend to be, robots. (That said, Sotomayor’s performance so far has been that of Automaton Lawyer.)

Cornyn, though, is having none of this; empathy isn’t and shouldn’t be part of decision-making. NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd is at her skewering best in yesterday’s take on the Republican Legion of (White) Super-Attackers. Smashing the tennis ball with deadly accuracy, she nails every line and corner of the court:

“A wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not know that a gaggle of white Republican men afraid of extinction are out to trip her up.

“After all, these guys have never needed to speak inspirational words to others like them, as Sotomayor has done. They’ve had codes, handshakes and clubs to do that.

“[P]resident Obama wants Sotomayor, naturally, to bring a fresh perspective to the court. It was a disgrace that W. appointed two white men to a court stocked with white men. And Sotomayor made it clear that she provides some spicy seasoning to a bench when she said in a speech: ‘I simply do not know exactly what the difference will be in my judging, but I accept there will be some based on gender and my Latina heritage.’

“Republican Lindsey Graham read Sotomayor some anonymous comments made by lawyers about her, complaining that she was “temperamental,” “nasty,” “a bit of a bully.” Then he patronizingly lectured her about how this was the moment for “self-reflection.” Maybe Graham thinks Nino Scalia has those traits covered.

“But the barbed adjectives didn’t match the muted performance on display before the Judiciary Committee. Like the president who picked her, Sotomayor has been a model of professorial rationality. Besides, it’s delicious watching Republicans go after Democrats for being too emotional and irrational given the G.O.P. shame spiral.

“W. and Dick Cheney made all their bad decisions about Iraq, W.M.D.’s, domestic surveillance, torture, rendition and secret hit squads from the gut, based on false intuitions, fear, paranoia and revenge.

“Sarah Palin is the definition of irrational, a volatile and scattered country-music queen without the music. Her Republican fans defend her lack of application and intellect, happy to settle for her emotional electricity.

“Senator Graham said Sotomayor would be confirmed unless she had ‘a meltdown’ — a word applied mostly to women and toddlers until Mark Sanford proudly took ownership of it when he was judged about the wisdom of his Latina woman.

“And then there’s the Supreme Court, of course, which gave up its claim to rational neutrality when the justices appointed by Republican presidents — including Bush Sr. — ignored what was fair to make a sentimental choice and throw the 2000 election to W.

“Faced with that warped case of supreme empathy, no wonder Sotomayor is so eager to follow the law.”

*********

Cornyn’s own record as a Texas Supreme Court Justice reveals a similar “supreme empathy” — to insurance companies. In the area of tort law, he consistently sided with majorities that eviscerated long-standing rules and principles, consistently to the advantage of defendant businesses and the insurance companies that ultimately would have had to account for the losses.

These decisions, often by the barest of majorities, were not in cases that any other state supreme court would have agreed with. In the 1992 case of Keetch v. Kroger Co., 845 S.W.2d 262 (Tex. 1992), Cornyn and three other justices held that a supermarket wasn’t necessarily liable for a slippery condition that its own employee had created. Maybe the employee didn’t know the spray he’d used had landed on the floor. The flabbergasted dissenters pointed out that the majority’s decision, in addition to being at odds with settled and uncontroversial law in Texas as well as everywhere else, effectively told employees and store owners to “look the other way.”

The majority also tripped the plaintiff up on a procedural error, one that the dissent noted was now applied only to those bringing suit, not to those defending: “Today the court… extends a dual standard of justice–an easy requirement for defendants, an inexplicably strict one for plaintiffs.” (Mauzy, J., dissenting)

This willingness to use arcane procedural rules to defeat claims sometimes meant that valid cases never got a hearing. In the inexplicable H.E. Butt Grocery Co. v. Warner, 845 S.W.2d 258 (Tex. 1992), Cornyn wrote only for himself (but as the majority because of an oddity of Texas law) in tossing out a case involving a woman who’d slipped and been injured allegedly because of an ill-conceived “bag your own chicken”1 promotion. Despite the clear description of the dangerous condition set forth in the complaint, then Justice Cornyn found that it hadn’t provided legally sufficient notice of the problem. I leave to the law-curious among you the details, but this telling comment from the dissent bears quoting:

“”The majority opinion defies modern rules of pleading, which require only that a plaintiff put the defendant on notice of the claim. [This] retrograde analysis runs counter…to modern tenets of procedure….”

Empathy for insurance companies and judicial activism: Not just for leftists, apparently. Cornyn’s decisions spawned dissents that were downright angry and accusatory. Here’s a good place to finish, again stemming from a pro-insurance decision by a Cornyn-led majority:

“When an unequivocal constitutional command and  concern for the insurance industry collide in this Court, the outcome is no longer in doubt. [T]oday’s decision is but one example of the court’s recent indifference to precedent and its commitment to wholesale revision of Texas law.” (Doggett, J., dissenting)

  1. Ick.