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Martin Garbus Headshot

Warren, Black, Marshall, Douglas -- Obama Got It Right. Hooray.

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Some of the criticism being leveled against Sonia Sotomayor is that her opinions aren't intellectual enough, that she is not intellectual enough in her legal approaches, that she's written no legal decisions that will live forever, and that her scholarship, writing and books are second-rate.

The law, notwithstanding what academics say, is not nuclear physics. I have taught law at Columbia at Yale, written five books including two on the Supreme Court, lectured widely at law schools and other places, and feel sufficiently expert to say that in writing the great legal decisions of our time, it was the personality of the writer, the life of the writer, the experiences of the writer, that determined the brilliance of the decision.

The great cases of the twentieth century, Brown v. Board of Education, one man one vote, reapportionment, and the pro-choice decisions are often short three-paragraph opinions. You don't need what has become a recent practice in the Supreme Court of three or four judges writing eighty pages, when we all know, before they start to write, what their conclusions will be.

Brown v. Board of Education, in one page, said that segregation was wrong. Earl Warren, Hugo Black, Thurgood Marshall, William Douglas could say what they wanted to say in two paragraphs. "Congress shall make no law" does not require a complicated interpretation. Segregation is wrong because the Constitution says it's wrong. Warren, Marshall, and Black were not great decision writers. Most of their language does not linger over time. But what they brought to the Court was unique. Warren, a governor; Black, a trial lawyer; and Marshall, chief counsel for the NAACP, brought their life experiences into every case. Douglas brought his radicalism.

Sonia Sotomayor brings to the Court the possibility, perhaps even only a remote possibility, of emulating these four great judges. That is more than enough reason to rejoice and to hope that Obama's choice will dramatically affect the lives of every American in the most wonderful possible way.

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