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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The judge who saved baseball

Tuesday, several people asked me about Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama's nominee to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court. I replied that I knew very little -- only that she was the judge who saved baseball in the 1994 labor dispute. Later that day, I saw Obama describe her in exactly those words.

As part of the negotiation for a new labor deal in 1994, the union went out on strike to prevent implementation of a salary cap. Owners had built a large strike fund and refused withdraw this demand. Owners also skipped an August 1 pension payment to the players. The dispute forced the end of the season in August, leading the owners to cancel the playoffs and World Series.

The next spring, owners fielded replacement players and threatened to market inferior baseball. The National Labor Relations Board rejected owners' negotiating strategies. From Doug Grabiner's FAQ:
The NLRB first threatened to issue a complaint that the owners had not negotiated in good faith on February 3, 1995; the owners settled by withdrawing the cap. However, they then responded to the players' ending their signing freeze by initiating their own signing freeze, and unilaterally renewing contracts by changing the language to deny players the right to arbitration and free agency.

On March 15, the NLRB issued a new complaint over this charge. On March 26, it asked Judge Sotomayor to grant an injunction restoring the old work rules. She granted this injunction on March 31, and the MLBPA then terminated the strike. When the owners decided not to lock the players out, spring training began, with Opening Day postponed to April 25.

The owners appealed this decision, and asked for a stay of the injunction. The stay was denied by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on September 29. This upholds Judge Sotomayor's ruling that the owners may not declare an impasse without her approval. The injunction also restored the old work rules pending a hearing on the full charges. This hearing was postponed at least eleven times as negotiations continued, was never held, and became moot with the new agreement.

The complaint over the August 1, 1994 pension payment was settled on May 19, 1995. The owners agreed to make this payment with interest by June 1, 1995, and agreed to make another payment on August 1, 1995, following the All-Star game.
Conservative columnist George Will apparently distorted this history to portray Sotomayor as an activist judge, but it is easy to find a corrective online. Indeed, even owner lawyers say she issued a fair ruling:
Sotomayor’s ruling restored the terms of the previous labor agreement so the season could go forward. Randy Levine, who became the owners’ chief labor negotiator five months after Sotomayor’s injunction, said her decision “gave both sides an opportunity to take a breath, to take stock of where they were.” Levine, now the Yankees’ president, added, “It led to the good-faith bargaining that produced revenue sharing, the luxury tax and interleague play.”

Sotomayor couldn’t will the owners and players to come to a quick agreement or prevent some old tensions from rising. But an agreement was finally reached more than a year later, in late November 1996. And there have been no work stoppages since.
What kind of red-blooded American could oppose the judge who saved baseball?

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