When President Obama introduced Judge Sonia Sotomayor as his nominee to the Supreme Court to replace retiring Justice David Souter, the only decision of hers he mentioned was the famous baseball case of 1995. Of course, she has written hundreds of opinions, some in important cases, others resolving the day-to-day disputes that make up the bulk of the docket of every United States Court of Appeals. The president's emphasis was not misplaced, however. More than any other decision, Judge Sotomayor's opinion in Silverman v. MLB Player Relations Committee evidences the qualities of thought and diligence she will bring to the Supreme Court.
We must remember the state of baseball before the case was brought to Judge Sotomayor's court in New York City. Labor relations in the National Game had deteriorated by the mid-1990s to the point where the owners seemed willing to risk destroying their business in order to free themselves from the tight grip the players union had on the game. The owners were prepared to start the season with replacement players (generally referred to as "scabs") who would play while the real players stayed on strike. For its part, the stubborn union was not about to sacrifice gains it achieved over fifteen years of work stoppages, lockouts and difficult negotiations. Mediation proved useless. Even the direct intervention of President Clinton, who brought the warring parties to the White House, could not alter the course of events. (I was told by someone who attended that session that it was Vice President Gore who did most of the mediating that night while Bill Clinton shared golfing stories with the representatives of the parties.)
The MLB Players Association complained to the National Labor Relations Board that the owners were not bargaining in good faith, and the Labor Board authorized Dan Silverman, the long-time Regional Director in New York, to file suit in federal district court seeking an injunction against the owners forcing them to undo the unilateral changes they had made in terms and conditions of employment. The case was randomly assigned to a junior trial judge, Sonia Sotomayor. It was the Judge's first labor case.
The Judge's decision is a genuine tour de force. It demonstrates a fluency in national labor law that is uncommon on the federal trial bench. She perceptively explains that the three alleged unilateral changes in question -- abolishing salary arbitration and the anti-collusion promise and prohibiting clubs from signing free agents -- all are parts of the baseball salary system. As such, they directly impact on player salaries, a matter management must bargain over with the union under national law. She granted the injunction the Labor Board had requested and the players, in turn, voluntarily agreed to return to work. The National Game was saved.
Much has been made of the fact that Judge Sotomayor is a Latina and that this somehow impacts on her decisions. Frankly, the baseball case does not reflect her heritage or her gender. It reflects her mastery of the law and her careful and informed reasoning. She certainly was mindful of the importance of the decision as a lifelong Yankees fan, but that should not be held against her. Her work in her judicial craft was as powerful as a Babe Ruth home run, as reliable as a Lou Gehrig consecutive game streak, and as steadfast as a Whitey Ford performance on the mound. President Obama was right. She saved baseball from itself.
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