First came the breaking-news e-mail alert: President Obama would appoint Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Within minutes, a dozen other e-mails tumbled through the hatch enumerating all the reasons why Sotomayor was a terrible pick: affirmative action, identity politics, the Ricci case, double standards, racism, sexism. Boom shacka-lacka-lacka … You could practically hear the bullet points ricocheting through the blogosphere.
Any sentient being could have predicted the reaction. A brilliant white Protestant heterosexual male with one wife, two children and a record so clean he squeaks when he walks would have been viewed with skepticism if Obama had chosen him. In partisan warfare, it’s never too soon to open fire.
Let’s give our trigger fingers a rest and clear some underbrush. Yes, of course, Sotomayor is a political pick aimed at consummating the Democratic Party’s romance with what has been the largest growing demographic in the country. Unprecedented.
When Republicans appoint justices (seven of the nine currently serving), they’re merely brilliant men who happen to be Italian-American or African-American – without any political-identity considerations whatsoever.
Then again, perhaps Sotomayor is an experienced jurist who happens to be a woman (check) and a Latina (check), who also happens to have the qualities Obama prefers, plus a spiffy resume: Princeton University Pyne Prize winner, Yale Law Journal editor, 17 years on the federal bench. Some call that a trifecta. Yet, you’d think from the onslaught that she runs a chain of abortion clinics.
Although her judicial record has raised some legitimate concerns, Sotomayor isn’t so easily characterized as the radical liberal some on the right have suggested. She has ruled favorably toward anti-abortion protesters and unfavorably toward minority plaintiffs.
Nevertheless, most criticism has been aimed at perceived racist-sexist remarks from a 2001 diversity speech in which Sotomayor suggested that she, as a Latina, could be more qualified than a white guy. Pause: Don’t most women think they’re more qualified than most men when it comes to making wise decisions? Kidding, kidding.
What she said: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” Sotomayor may be redundant (a Latina is a woman) and possibly misguided, but she isn’t necessarily a sexist-racist.
Could a white male get away with saying something comparable about a Latina? Of course not. After Latinas have run the world for 2,000 years, they won’t be able to say it ever again either.
Finally, context. Sotomayor’s point was that the ethnicity and sex of a judge “may and will make a difference in our judging.” Who doesn’t believe that?
Just for fun, I might argue that Sotomayor is a conservative inasmuch as she implicitly recognizes that men and women are different and bring different perspectives to bear. Radical-liberal types tend to fantasize that sex is not a difference that matters. It also can’t be denied that one’s racial/ethnic background is profoundly significant, though we all pretend otherwise as convenient.
The broader concern, obviously, is that such considerations not interfere with how Lady Justice, her blindfold securely fastened, interprets the law. Hence questions about Sotomayor’s role in the now-suddenly famous Ricci v. DeStefano case.
Briefly, Ricci is a white firefighter who performed well on a promotion-related exam. But because minorities didn’t do as well – and therefore couldn’t be promoted – the city tossed the test. Ricci and 19 other firefighters sued.
The pinch for Sotomayor is that she and the other two appellate panelists affirmed a lower court ruling favoring the city’s decision – without evidence of having grappled with the legal issues. Thus, a legitimate question for anyone: What was she thinking?
By the time Sotomayor comes up for a vote, we’ll know everything but her ring size.
For now, the hot winds of punditry could use a little chill. Calling Sotomayor a sexist and racist, far from being fair, is an irrational rush to judgment unbecoming ladies, gentlemen, scoundrels and scholars.
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