Saturday, July 18, 2009

‘Wise Latina’ Proves Simply Brilliant

  • Caption: Judge Sonia Sotomayor (Official White House Photo)

Hey, do you hear that? Me either…That’s the sound of Judge Sonia Sotomayor NOT making headlines. Yesterday morning was the first time in days that President Barack Obama’s controversial pick for the Supreme Court – the first nominee for the high court named by a Democrat in 15 years and the first Hispanic appointee in history – wasn’t leading the news schedules.

I have to admit that, at first, I found the silence eerie and a bit disquieting. But then I checked around a little and figured it out: The usually flamboyant jurist, whose blunt comments have openly rankled conservative white Republican senators had handled herself with such admirable restraint as she stood up to grueling interrogation starting on Monday of this week, that by the end of the week she had successfully “underwhelmed” everybody. No longer even a headliner, she appeared to be on a course toward sure approval, no matter how hard far-right holdouts tried to delay the inevitable. In fact, one could say that, by now, if by some Republican-hardliner “miracle” she were not confirmed as a Supreme Court justice, it would be one of the greatest travesties in the history of Senate oversight.

All week long, in the Senate hearings to decide whether or not lawmakers would honor the President’s wish for her to become one of the nine justices charged with the task of making the country’s most difficult legal decisions, Democrats sought to raise a protective net around Judge Sotomayor, while Republican opponents to her appointment attacked her with rabid enthusiasm, gnashing away at her to see if they could get her to show what they had speculated were her “true colors”.

Before the 17-year veteran of the Federal Courts had ever gotten to the confirmation hearings, far-right senators and news commentators had already done their best to characterize her as a hothead, an activist, a reverse-racist, an over-emotional and perhaps even dangerous Latina of far-left persuasions, who decided cases based more on her gut than on the law. By the time Judge Sotomayor settled into the appointee’s seat before the panel of Senate ‘inquisitors’, a number of mainstream Americans were probably a little surprised that she didn’t arrive wearing olive drab fatigues and puffing a Cuban corona.

But the public hearings put that myth to rest immediately – or rather, Judge Sotomayor’s stunning performance before the hearing committee did. If she was any of the things far-right Republicans tried to lead the public to believe she was with their racist, sexist, paranoid gossip, there was never a glimpse of it all week. In fact, she received and answered (or sidestepped answering) all of their accusatory grilling with serenity, logic, grace and eloquence, demonstrating herself to be the well-focused and utterly brilliant jurist and intellectual that she is.

It was surely clear to no few objective observers that the most fervent of her opponents came to the hearings with an at least pre-conceived if not downright prejudiced bias against her. Their line of questioning made that fairly easy to see. For instance, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham saw nothing wrong with reading out a list of anonymous insults – more than criticisms - from alleged jurists who “knew” Sotomayor. Or did the senator just make them up himself? Anybody who has taken Journalism 101 knows that if you’re going to hurl accusations you had better have the sources to back them up. And in a court of law, Graham’s assertions would certainly have been referred to as “unsubstantiated hearsay” designed to bias the jury.

He claimed he knew of people who had called her “nasty”, “a bit of a bully”, a “terror” and “lacking in judicial temperament”. Graham then asked her if she thought she had a “temperament problem”. (This was tantamount to classic loaded questions of the sort of “Is it true that you’re no longer a drunk?”).

But even as insulting and gratuitous as Graham’s line of sophomoric questioning was, you could almost feel the yogini-like ooooooooooommmmmmmm vibrating in the jurist’s chest as, without allowing a flicker of the irritation she must have felt show on her face, she calmly answered, “No, sir, I can only talk about what I know about my relationships...” adding that she was on cordial terms with those she considered her colleagues, and going on to say, “…when I ask lawyers tough questions, it's to give them an opportunity to explain their positions on both sides and to persuade me that they're right.”

Obviously miffed that he couldn’t get a rise out of her, Graham, himself a lawyer, came back at her again saying, apropos of nothing, “I never liked appearing in court before a judge I thought was a bully.” To which Judge Sotomayor said that she did indeed ask attorneys tough questions, but that she did so even-handedly, on both sides of each case.

Prior to the hearings, Graham had been quoted as telling Sotomayor that “unless you have a complete meltdown, you’re going to be confirmed.” He was apparently trying to provoke just such a ‘meltdown’, but his attempt – clumsy and unsophisticated - was frustrated. In the end, the one who seemed rattled was the senator himself as he churlishly and condescendingly said that perhaps the hearings would provide Judge Sotomayor with “a time for self-reflection”. Nor was it the only time he sought to treat Sotomayor as his inferior. Twice he asked her if she recalled her now famous “wise Latina” remark (which, she had already explained, had been taken out of context and had been meant as a rhetorical device in a debate situation), then calling on her to recite it for the senate panel. When she hedged the second time he said he “had it right here” did she want him to read it? And he proceeded to do so. But to what end, other than harassment and attempted character assassination was anyone’s guess.

Clearly, the only bully in this case was Senator Graham, who seemed to be making a puerile attempt to get back at all those judges of the past that he had just admitted being scared to face in court. And like all bullies, he ended up looking flustered and foolish and decidedly un-gallant when faced with someone of true strength and self-confidence.

Earlier in the week she had also shown this strength when senior Republican committee member and Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions badgered her about the same “wise Latina” remark from a 2001 speech she had made and tried to tie this alleged “attitude” to how she would rule in cases with racial implications. She said that it had been a rhetorical device gone awry and indicated that her rulings as a judge were clearly based on the law and not on anything else. The indication was that her record spoke for itself. In further questioning about racial profiling which was also linked to fears of terrorism that have been rampant in the United States ever since the nine-eleven Twin Towers attack, Sotomayor referred to a World War II Supreme Court decision that upheld the internment of Japanese-Americans saying that the decision had been wrong. Considering the obvious parallel with present attempts to combat terrorism, she also explained how current courts could keep from repeating the mistakes of World War II. In conclusion she said: “A judge should never rule from fear. A judge should rule from law and the Constitution.”

By the end of the week Senator Sessions was showing no further interest in blocking Sotomayor’s appointment and even said, “I look forward to you getting that vote before we recess in August.” And Lindsey Graham had gone as far as to say that he “might even vote” for her, stating that her decisions as a judge had been “generally in the mainstream”, an impression echoed by Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas.

In the end, the conservative Republican committee members’ line of questioning showed that their doubts were obviously more about their own racial bias and unfounded fears than about the judge’s judicial record or her outstanding qualifications as a jurist. And throughout the questioning, Sotomayor consistently managed to underscore the fact that she was precisely what she had had to apologize for being all week long: a “wise Latina” and a brilliant professional, clearly suited to the Supreme Court seat.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor: Does White Make Right?

  • Caption: Judge Sonia Sotomayor. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza).

US Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama has just had a lightning-bolt revelation. Namely, that President Barack Obama’s candidate for the Supreme Court, Federal Judge Sonia Sotomayor, is “out of the mainstream”...

I’ll wait a moment for the applause to die down before I go on.

You kind of have to figure that if Senator Sessions is just now noticing this about the New York-born Hispanic judge he either wasn’t listening before or he is just hopelessly obtuse. Well, of course, then there’s the other possibility: that he’s just now bringing it up and saying it on a nationwide news broadcast because he is still hoping against hope to hurt the 55-year-old jurist in the her confirmation hearings that started today, July 13.

One of Judge Sotomayor’s most avid defenders in the Senate, Democrat Patrick Leahy, has sought to show that the scare tactics the Republican opponents to the nomination are using are clearly unwarranted. The Associated Press has quoted him as stating that "…in truth, we do not have to speculate about what kind of a justice she will be because we have seen the kind of judge she has been. She is a judge in which all Americans can have confidence. She has been a judge for all Americans and will be a justice for all Americans…"

Leahy was talking about Sotomayor’s 17-year career as a Federal Judge, an achievement in itself considering that when she rose to the Federal bench she was approximately a decade and a half younger than most jurists are who receive that honor. Leahy stated that her record in the Federal Courts proved that she was “mainstream”.

Senator Leahy is also missing the point, however. Sonia Sotomayor is not mainstream. Not by a long shot. If her nomination makes it through the Senate hearings, she will be only the third woman ever to reach that august post, following the appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981 and that of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (currently serving) in 1993. She will also be the first Hispanic ever to sit on the Supreme Court bench and only its third minority member in history, sharing this well-deserved honor with Thurgood Marshall (first African American, appointed in 1967) and Clarence Thomas (the only serving black Justice, appointed in 1991). But apart from these obvious differences between Judge Sotomayor and other select jurists who have acceded to the highest court in the land, there is her own personal style to be considered. Sotomayor’s absolutely stunning honesty and audacious directness are what have gotten her into trouble with traditional white male conservative opponents. They question her statements regarding her Latin-ness, about the ability of a “wise Latina” to perhaps make clearer-cut decisions than some white males. And they have strived to connect her straightforward way of talking with her court’s decisions that they have attempted to brand as unfair, when, in fact, if they have erred at all, they have done so on the side of justice for all.

The fact is that what opponents are seeking to pass off as “weaknesses” in the argument for her appointment to the Supreme Court are really among Sonia Sotomayor’s strengths. Saying what the public wants to hear and making judgments according to popular belief rather than being true to oneself and one’s values and making decisions based on sound legal and ethical analysis is not what a Supreme Court justice should be known for, nor should running with the pack.

That Judge Sotomayor is capable of seeing the world from an angle other than that of the head-on mainstream should, in fact, be considered a welcome addition to the Justice system in the United States. Clearly, as a human being, no judge, no matter how lofty a position he or she attains, can see cases without doing so through the filter of their own upbringing, education and ethnic background. While it is their duty to be objective, it is their burden but also their virtue to be able to apply what they know about themselves and their own lives to the decisions they make and the opinions they give. And one would like to think that they are appointed, among other reasons, precisely because of their personal virtues.

The arguments that have been presented against Judge Sotomayor’s appointment to the Supreme Court, while dressed up in the guise of judicial issues, have been clearly racist and sexist in their underlying tone. Many mainstream, white, conservative Americans would probably like to continue to think of the Supreme Court as nine gray-headed, grumpy old white men, there to preserve and defend to the death the white Anglo-Saxon Puritan heritage that they would like to perceive as the “real heart and soul” of America. And these people tend to find Sotomayor downright “uppity”. But the truth is that the United States is an immigrant melting pot and that it has been this highly creative life-force that has been responsible for a large proportion of the country’s development and strength, its amazing diversity and its incredible adaptability. Never has this been truer than today, when in just a few short decades, the Hispanic population of the United States has gone from a scant 9 million to more than 45 million today, with projections for as many as 100 million US Hispanics to be living in the country by 2050.

Presuming that Judge Sotomayor should have to “answer for” her ethnicity and gender as an Hispanic woman is unquestionably gender and race-driven. For her opponents to try and pretend that race only enters into the issue in as much as Sonia Sotomayor is viewed as a “racist Latina” is truly hypocritical. Would they permit themselves to be questioned regarding their pride at being of “traditional” white origin or as a result of their making decisions that reflect their own ethnic background? And if not, does their “whiteness” somehow place them in the permanent position of inquisitor rather than respondent?

Fortunately, her approval appears almost assured even if it is highly improbable that she will win the approval rating of her white women predecessors, Sandra Day O’Connor, who received a Senate approval vote of 99 to 0, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg who was sworn in after a vote of 96 to 3. In the end, however, the outcome of the vote matters little, as long as it is positive, thus permitting the United States to enjoy the advantage of having a brilliant jurist with a fresh take on major issues sitting on its highest Court.