Thursday, May 28, 2009

Holmes, Sotomayor, and the national pastime

While the Supreme Court is usually linked with issues of national gravity -- Brown v. Board of Education (1954) ended school segregation, and Roe v. Wade (1972) decided national policy in favor of abortion -- the court has recently become linked with a national pastime, albeit indirectly.
Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama's choice for the high court, enters the nomination process as a judge whose resume includes dealing with professional sports. In 1995, as a Manhattan federal district court judge, Sotomayor issued an injunction that made major-league baseball end a strike that had cancelled the playoffs and World Series the previous year.
Thus did Sotomayor join other judges who umpired professional baseball from the bench, including Supreme Court justices Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in 1922 and Tom Clark in 1953. And it's worth noting a positive change since the Holmes and Clark decisions: Big Government has grown more willing to police Big Business, with better results for the nation.
Holmes, in Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore v. National League, spoke for the high court when he ruled that major-league baseball didn't exercise monopoly power over the national pastime and therefore didn't violate federal antitrust laws. Clark, in Toolson v. New York Yankees, said that even though pro baseball had gotten just a tad more consolidated in power and lucrative in profits since the Holmes case, the original ruling still stood.
These decisions symbolized what was wrong with American judicial attitudes toward business in the first half of the past century. The high court was too willing to follow President Calvin Coolidge's contention that "the chief business of America is business." As the court let pro baseball grow unfettered from judicial regulation, it was perhaps unsurprising that the man who filled the power vacuum in the American and National Leagues for much of the early 20th century, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, oversaw a system of inequality -- a system that banned African-Americans from playing in the majors until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, three years after Landis' death.
Sotomayor represents a healthy change from the outdated pro-business-above-all-else judicial thinking of the past. She realizes that businesses -- especially ones claiming to represent a national pastime -- deserve no exemption from national scrutiny. Let us hope she brings similar clearsightedness to the Supreme Court.

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