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Sotomayor takes vocal role on her first day

The newest Supreme Court justice doesn't play the shy rookie, but peppers lawyers with questions, more even than Scalia and Ginsburg. The court takes a close look at the Miranda rule.

October 06, 2009|David G. Savage

WASHINGTON — By mid-morning on the first day of the Supreme Court's term, it was clear new Justice Sonia Sotomayor would fit right in -- and in particular with her talkative fellow New Yorkers.

Sotomayor peppered the lawyers with questions in a pair of cases, joining with Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg during the oral arguments. Together, they left the other justices sitting in silence for much of the time.

In the first hour alone, Sotomayor asked 36 questions, and Scalia followed with 30. Ginsburg is particularly interested in legal procedures, and she and Sotomayor dominated the questioning for much of the second hour.

In the past, some rookie justices listened for days before joining in the fast-paced arguments. Justice David H. Souter, the reserved New Hampshire native whom Sotomayor replaced, said little during his first year. Justice Clarence Thomas has not asked a question for more than three years.

If anyone assumed Sotomayor would play the role of shy rookie, she dispelled that idea within the first minutes of the opening argument.

She leaned forward and began questioning Maryland Atty. Gen. Douglas Gansler about the Miranda rule, which requires police to warn a suspect that he has a right to remain silent and a right to lawyer. If a suspect says he wants a lawyer before he answers questions, the police must stop the questioning. It also bars police from trying again a day or two later to persuade him to talk without a lawyer.

But how long does this prohibition on questioning last? A police investigator in Maryland decided to visit an inmate who was held on other charges and ask him about an unresolved child abuse case. It was two years and seven months after the prisoner, Michael Shatzer, had refused to talk unless he had a lawyer. Shatzer made incriminating comments to the new investigator. After Shatzer was convicted of child abuse, a Maryland appeals court ruled that his rights were violated when he was questioned without a lawyer present.

The Supreme Court took up Maryland's appeal, and the justices, Sotomayor included, sounded as if they were searching for a new rule that would allow questioning of crime suspects after a long lapse of time.

A lawyer for the convicted child abuser insisted he should not have been questioned once he had said he would not talk without a lawyer.

"So there is no termination point? Really?" asked Sotomayor, sounding as skeptical as Scalia.

The possibility of a rivalry between Scalia and Sotomayor has been the topic of speculation since her appointment. Scalia has been the court's most outspoken conservative for more than 20 years, and Sotomayor had shown herself to be strong and assertive as a judge on the U.S. appeals court in Manhattan.

Outside the courtroom, she has already managed to upstage Scalia. A lifelong Yankees fan, she was invited to throw out the first ball in a recent game at Yankee Stadium. Scalia, another lifelong Yankees fan, is awaiting his invitation.

The term's opening is also the day for the court to turn down litigants. The justices released a list of more than 1,800 appeals that they turned down without comment.

In an abortion-related case, the court turned down a pro-adoption group called Choose Life Illinois that said it had a free-speech right to have "Choose Life" license plates. The state refused and said it did not want to get involved in the abortion controversy. (Choose Life vs. White)

The court rejected an appeal from a Florida youth who said he had a right to sit silently during the Pledge of Allegiance at school. Florida law says students can be excused from this ritual only with the parents' permission. (Frazier vs. Smith)

The court turned away a free-speech appeal from high school students in Tennessee who said they had a right to wear T-shirts displaying a Confederate flag. (Barr vs. LaFron)

The court refused a request from the Catholic archdiocese in Bridgeport, Conn., seeking to block the release of files on priests accused of sexual abuse. A state court had ordered the release, and the church argued, unsuccessfully, that this would violate its rights under the 1st Amendment. (Roman Catholic Diocesan Corp. vs. New York Times)

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david.savage@latimes.com

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