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.

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