Scalia to Sotomayor- “Don’t be rhetorical”

November 30th, 2010

Argument got rather heated today in Schwarzenegger v. Plata. In this case, the Supreme Court considers the problem of overcrowded California prisons.

In this exchange, Justice Sotomayor expressed her frustration at the slow pace California is addressing the problem. Justice Scalia quipped–without laughter–not to be rhetorical.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Can you do it in 5 years?
MR. PHILLIPS: I don’t know. I — you know, if — balancing all of the policies that the State has to take into account, can it get there and is that in the best interest of the State of California? If it is, yes, then we can get there.
JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Well, the best interest of the State of California, isn’t it to deliver adequate constitutional care to the people that it incarcerates? That’s a constitutional obligation.
MR. PHILLIPS: Absolutely. And California recognizes that.
JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: So when are you going to get to that? When are you going to avoid the needless deaths that were reported in this record? When are you going to avoid or get around people sitting in their feces for days in a dazed state? When are you going to get to a point where you are going to deliver care that is going to be adequate?
JUSTICE SCALIA: Don’t be rhetorical.
Justice Sotomayor, and to a lesser extent Justice Ginsburg, were quite vocal, launching many probing questions at Petitioner.
Update: Lyle Deniston reads the above exchange as Justice Scalia admonishing Mr. Phillips to avoid rhetoric. Because I was not present at arguments, my characterization may be incorrect, though I think the point stands.