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The Sotomayor Attack Squad

May 26th, 2009 No comments

While we’re waiting for the Prop 8 decision, a few quick words about Sonia Sotomayor, Obama’s pick to replace the retiring Justice Souter on the Supreme Court.

First, absent some kind of totally unexpected revelation on the order of Satan worship, expect her confirmation to happen. But that doesn’t mean that the red-meat Republicans won’t try to rally their base (I’d love to retire that phrase) by jumping all over her, especially on discrimination rulings she’s made. Others have thoroughly discussed this issue, so I’m going to talk abou the dreaded “e” word: empathy. Obama stated that he wanted a justice that understood the problems of real people and empathized with them, and Sotomayor apparently made things “worse” a few years ago by publicly stating that being a woman and a Latina informs and shapes her judicial outlook. (The statement is quoted in this attack piece.)

If this line of “attack” is used, I’d love to hear a response something like this:1

“Of course my background shapes who I am, which in turn affects how I see issues and rule on them. That’s true of everyone. Justice Scalia is a product of his conservative Catholic upbringing. Justice Kenney has been affected by spending time in Europe, which seem to have led him to question, on some level, American exceptionalism. Justice Ginsberg’s experiences in a male-dominated legal environment surely affected the way she sees and understands gender discrimination cases. This doesn’t mean that our rulings can be predicted by these things, and many other considerations– the language of the constitution or of statutes; the equities of the case; and policy implications beyond the case we’re deciding — can be decisive in particular cases. But we’re not robots any more than the people on this panel are.”

If this tactic is used, it will be a close cousin, I fear, to the sort of (borderline racist/sexist) smear campaign against Sotomayor now playing at a blog site near you. One of the central points that keeps being made about this summa cum laude Princeton grad with a J.D. from Yale (where she was an editor of the Yale Law Journal) is that, well, she’s not very smart. Given her staggering accomplishments, this can be read as code for: (1) “She’s an affirmative action baby.”; and (2) “We can’t say this directly, but we can imply it by reminding people that she’s unduly influenced by the characteristics that got her this far.”

Give me a break. Here’s a woman who grew up in housing projects in the Bronx, mostly with one parent (her father died when she was a child), and who — somehow — ended up at the top of the heap at Princeton and Yale. Everything else aside, affirmative action doesn’t get you grades. No matter whether you think that the rep of these schools is in the nature of an unjustified perpetual motion machine, doing as well as she’s done says something about both industry and pure smarts.

As PeeWee Herman used to say: “Let the cartoons begin!”

  1. It won’t happen.
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