Landmark Ruling

Judge Sonia Sotomayor helped baseball return to the field in 1995

March 28, 2012

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was born in the South Bronx, just a few miles from Yankee Stadium.

And en route to judicial history, Sotomayor had an impact on baseball history.

Sotomayor grew up valuing education, hard work, and family. She excelled in high school, graduating at the top of her class and earning a scholarship to Princeton University. After graduating summa cum laude from Princeton, Sotomayor went to Yale Law School and earned top honors. After law school, Sotomayor became the Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan.

It was in Manhattan that Sotomayor became well known as a talented and dedicated prosecutor. Five years later, Sotomayor entered private practice and worked with cases involving copyright law, intellectual property, and trademark infringement. In 1992, George H.W. Bush appointed Sotomayor as the youngest judge on the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. From 1992 to 1998, Sotomayor served in this role and saw hundreds of cases as a judge.

One of the most notable cases she worked on at the United States District Court involved Major League Baseball. MLB was going through a difficult time negotiating a labor agreement between players and owners. With the increased power of the players through the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), the first general strike in baseball history occurred in 1972. The strike lasted for 14 days at the beginning of the season, and a total of 86 games were lost and not replayed.  And following strikes in 1981 and 1985, the 1994 strike cancelled the World Series for the first time since 1904.

In 1994, the National Labor Relations Board filed a petition to challenge the labor practices of the baseball owners. The owners were trying to make changes to salary polices, arbitration methods, and the management of player negotiations. The National Labor Relations Board found these proposed changes to be a violation of the rights of workers. 

Judge Sotomayor had to decide if the proposed changes went against the existing collective bargaining policies. Sotomayor filed an injunction for the case before the Opening Day of the 1995 season – when replacement players were scheduled to begin the season in place of the striking players. The injunction gave the two sides time to continue discussion and play under the old work rules without furthering the work stoppage. By the end of the 1996 season, a new agreement had been reached. Claude Lewis of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that by saving the season, Judge Sotomayor joined "the ranks of Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams."

In 2002, the pattern of strikes was broken when the two sides agreed to a new labor contract for the first time without a work stoppage. Baseball has not had a labor stoppage since the 1994-95 strike.

In 1998, President Clinton appointed Sotomayor to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Most recently in 2009, based on her distinguished record and experience, Sotomayor was nominated and confirmed as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

Anna Wade is the former director of museum education at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum