Sotomayor: ‘A wise Latina,’ or a racist?

A comment in a speech Judge Sonia Sotomayor made eight years ago has ignited a debate over the extent to which judges are influenced by their life experiences.

You’re not dreaming, said The New York Times in an editorial. The first Hispanic nominee to the United States Supreme Court really “is being called racist.” The supposed basis of the charge against Judge Sonia Sotomayor, whom President Obama has nominated to replace the retiring Justice David Souter, is a comment she made in a speech eight years ago. “I would hope,” said Sotomayor, “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.” To angry voices on the Right, these 32 words are clear evidence of the “reverse racism” (Rush Limbaugh) lurking within the heart of a “Latina woman racist” (Newt Gingrich). Sotomayor would probably take that comment back if she could, said Leonard Pitts in The Miami Herald. But let’s not forget that of the 112 people to sit on the Supreme Court, “108 have been white men,” many of whom concluded there was nothing at all wrong with slavery, segregation, and the noxious Jim Crow laws. Sotomayor’s confirmation will be another welcome step toward a Supreme Court that “looks like America.”

If Sotomayor had merely said diversity was a good thing, said Steve Chapman in the Chicago Tribune, she’d have nothing to explain. But the full text of her “wise Latina” comments reveals a bolder—and more troubling—argument. Not only did Sotomayor say that women and minorities make better judges than white males, she was openly skeptical of judges who try to put aside their personal biases and rule impartially. “The aspiration to impartiality is just that—it’s an aspiration,” she said, dismissively.

Like the president who nominated her, said Charles Krauthammer in The Washington Post, Sotomayor is a product of the Demo-cratic Party’s “identity politics, which assigns free citizens to ethnic and racial groups possessing a hierarchy of wisdom and entitled to a hierarchy of claims upon society.” In this value system, white men like New Haven, Conn., firefighter Frank Ricci are not entitled to any claims of injustice. Ricci aced the department’s promotion exams in 2003, only to see his results tossed because none of his black co-workers “had scored high enough to be promoted.” Ricci sued the city, in a case that eventually came before Sotomayor’s federal appeals court. She dismissed his appeal in a breezy single-paragraph ruling. Now you know how a “wise Latina woman” rules, when white men come before her court.

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Oh, please, said Dick Polman in The Philadelphia Inquirer. When Sotomayor made that comment, she was merely “stating the obvious”: that while objectivity is always the goal, all judges are flesh-and-blood human beings who “are inevitably influenced by their life experiences—or lack thereof.” Chief Justice John Roberts, who served as a corporate attorney for years, has, not surprisingly, a strong pro-business bias that has helped businesses win 13 out of 15 decisions in the court’s last term. “Clearly, conservatives are bothered only by certain kinds of life experiences.” Besides, Sotomayor has often ruled against minorities charging racial discrimination, said Glenn Greenwald in And in one 2002 case, she sided with a white New York City cop who had been fired for making blatantly racist and anti-Semitic comments. As ugly as those comments were, Sotomayor wrote, the cop had a First Amendment right to make them. So much for her supposed “race-based” approach to the law.

If Sotomayor has such complex views on race, let’s hear what she really thinks, said Jonah Goldberg in the Los Angeles Times. Instead, Obama is already trying to shut down that conversation, insisting that she didn’t really mean that Latinas make better judges than white men. But those 2001 comments were not off the cuff: She wrote that speech and later published it in a journal. Let’s face it, “if a white judge ever said anything similar, his career would be over.” True enough, said Kathleen Parker in The Washington Post. But given that some of the 108 white male justices who have served on the court have turned their racist views into national policy, Sotomayor can be forgiven for her provocative view that it’s time for some fresh blood. “After Latinas have run the world for 2,000 years,” she’ll have to be far more circumspect.

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