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How Sotomayor ‘Saved’ Baseball

4 minute read
Sean Gregory

Barack Obama has never hidden his passion for sports, whether it be opining on the shortcomings of the college football Bowl Championship Series or defending his picks for the NCAA college basketball tournament. So perhaps it should have come as no surprise that in announcing his nomination of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court, the President singled out the federal appeals court judge’s landmark 1995 ruling that effectively ended the 232-day baseball strike. “Some say that Judge Sotomayor saved baseball,” Obama said on Tuesday. That may be an exaggeration, of course, but there are many baseball observers who agree that Sotomayor’s quick, decisive action — which helped halt a strike that had eliminated the last month and a half of the 1994 regular season as well as the entire postseason — ended a dispute that could have ruined the national pastime for good. (See pictures of Sotomayor.)

And if Sotomayor’s performance back then offers any clues about how she’ll perform on the high court, expect a brisk jurist who is utterly unafraid to dress down powerful interest groups. On March 30, 1995, Sotomayor, then age 40 and the youngest judge in the Southern District of New York, presided over a two-hour hearing in which the baseball players’ association protested the owners’ decision to unilaterally eliminate free-agent negotiations and salary arbitrations while both sides were negotiating a new collective-bargaining agreement. Although Sotomayor, who was raised in a housing project a few miles from Yankee Stadium in the South Bronx, admitted that “I know nothing about this, except what a common layperson reads in the New York Times,” she also told the litigators that “I hope none of you assumed … that my lack of knowledge of any of the intimate details of your dispute meant I was not a baseball fan. You can’t grow up in the South Bronx without knowing about baseball.” (Read about the 1994 baseball strike.)

She grilled both sides, and it took her only 15 minutes to rule in favor of the players. “She obviously had done her homework well before the case was argued,” says Donald Fehr, the head lawyer for the players’ union. “She was in control of her courtroom.” Sotomayor issued an injunction against the owners that ordered them to restore free agency and arbitration. With the injunction in place, the players agreed to return to work while a new labor agreement was hammered out.

Sotomayor chided the owners. “The owners misunderstood the case law, and many of their arguments were inconsistent,” she said. “One side can’t come up with new rules unless they negotiate it with the other.” A few sports columnists, offended by the speed with which she reached her decision, offered odd indictments of Sotomayor. “I’m sorry she’s not male, so I could say what I really think,” wrote Furman Bisher of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I haven’t the time or disposition to deal with NOW [the National Organization for Women] right now.” However, the legal community for the most part still has high praise for her judgment. “It was the correct ruling,” says Rick Karcher, sports law professor at the Florida Coastal School of Law. “She assured that fair collective bargaining would take place under the labor laws.” A few days later, a three-judge panel from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Sotomayor’s injunction, and baseball played a 144-game season in 1995. (Read “Judge Sonia Sotomayor Headed for Easy Supreme Court Nomination.”)

Sotomayor revisited sports law back in 2004, when she upheld the NFL’s rule that players must be out of high school for three years before becoming eligible for the draft. Former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett, who at the time was suspended from college football for accepting improper gifts and filing a false police report, had sued the league, alleging that this rule violated anti-trust law. Sotomayor argued that the age-eligibility rule was exempt from anti-trust law, even though the rule is a “hardship” on players who are not yet members of the players’ union. Says Karcher: “Her ruling gave the union the authority to negotiate terms on behalf of amateur players, taking them out of the anti-trust arena and keeping them in the labor arena. Both decisions, at least in the sports area, tend to suggest she is pro-labor.”

Read “High Court Politics: Why Obama Picked Sonia Sotomayor.”

See four myths about Supreme Court nominees.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com