Legal History

Sotomayor takes SCOTUS chief justice seat to re-enact famous baseball case


Photo of Sonia Sotomayor by collection of the
Supreme Court of the United States, Steve
Petteway, via Wikimedia Commons.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor got the chance to sit at the center of the bench, normally reserved for Chief Justice John Roberts, this week as she presided over the re-enactment of a case that unsuccessfully challenged the ability of baseball team owners to virtually own their players.

The 1972 case brought by St. Louis Cardinals great Curt Flood was performed at an event—that showcased Sotomayor’s “wicked” sense of humor—put on by the Supreme Court Historical Society, NPR reported. Flood v. Kuhn challenged the provision that allowed teams to virtually own players, set salaries and conduct trades, with the players for all practical purposes never able to negotiate freely with other teams. Flood wrote to then-baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn protesting that he was “not a piece of property to be bought and sold.” When Kuhn denied his request for free agency Flood sued. The court’s decision (widely disrespected today, according to NPR), acknowledged that the court’s previous rulings upholding baseball’s antitrust exemption were wrong and led to the subsequent creation of a free agency system in baseball, NPR reports.

The fallout of that decision led to an eventual 1994 case that was brought before a young federal district court judge named Sonia Sotomayor, contending that owners were negotiating in bad faith.

Sotomayor agreed that team owners were colluding illegally to fix salaries and granted a temporary injunction barring them from doing that. A wildly dedicated Yankees fan, she issued her opinion in time to allow the new baseball season to begin as scheduled on opening day, with the old baseball contract in effect, earning her the title, “the judge who saved baseball,” according to the report.

When asked after the re-enactment what she would have ruled in the original case, Sotomayor offered her legal analysis, adding that she would have also insisted that Joe DiMaggio be added to Justice Henry Blackmun’s “notorious” seven-page opening of the Flood v. Kuhn, which listed 88 of baseball’s all-time greatest players, NPR reports.

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