This morning, Obama announced his nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. The nomination’s notable for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that Sotomayor would be the first Latin@ to sit on the high bench, the first woman of color — and only the third woman, after O’Connor and Ginsburg. Sotomayor grew up in the housing projects of the South Bronx, was raised by a single mother after the death of her father, is a diabetic, a Catholic, and is divorced with no children. Obama described her life as an “extraordinary journey,” talking about how she graduated at the top of her class from Princeton and then Yale Law School.
You might be wondering why I rattled off a laundry list of her life experiences, or what you might call identity categories. Two reasons: first, her career has been batted around for years by feuding Democrats and Republicans because she’s a woman of color. Once she made the short list for an Obama nomination, the rumors and sniping started up again. What she doesn’t have any kids? Not only that, but some people think she’s fat. Or are even spuriously linking her weight to her diabetes.
Get ready for a whole season of this kind of thing as her nomination is challenged. And it surely will be, in part because Sotomayor herself finds that (shockingly!) her own life experiences may lend her particular kinds of wisdom and insight. I rather agree with this quote of hers, and it’s already become a lightning-rod for conservative criticism:
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.
I actually agree that yes, people have different kinds of insight, ways of seeing, and understanding of issues depending on how their life experiences have positioned them within all kinds of social frameworks. Race, gender, and class are among the hugest of those; when white, male, and middle-class is the “default” category in your society, there are perspectives that only those forced outside the norm end up seeing from, while the “normal” version is broadcast everywhere as background noise.
Of course, I don’t even know if Sotomayor would agree with all of that; it’s not clear what the context of this quote is, other than that it’s from a lecture. A “better conclusion” in what circumstances, on what kind of decision? I somehow doubt she meant universally, but that’s likely to be the conservative spin. First quote, from the right-wing Judicial Confirmation Network, is out already: “[Sotomayor] thinks that one’s sex, race and ethnicity ought to affect the decisions one renders from the bench.”
We live in a time when life experiences are held to be the most significant indicators of our opinions and political beliefs. In really predictable and obvious ways, too. “Black women in Election 2008?! who will they vote for? the black? the woman?” Sotomayor’s a Catholic! but a liberal woman! does that mean she’s pro-life or pro-choice? who knows!? As part and parcel, Sotomayor’s identities are focused on as the newsworthy aspect of her nomination. Beyond all of the sketchy sniping going on, much of it seemingly intended to paint a picture of Sotomayor as a aggressive, dumb, affirmative-action-exploiting opportunist (because gosh, how could a Latina from the Bronx make it to Princeton and Yale otherwise, right?) is the reality of her political impact on the courts. She’s actually fairly — and disappointingly, to me — centrist and moderate in her decisions.
No big surprise there — Obama’s appointing a centrist? This just continues a long Democratic tradition of choosing relatively uncontroversial apointees, while the Republicans pull as far right as they can. Sotomayor was originally appointed to the federal courts by Bush back in 1991, which made her the first Latin@ federal judge as well. She’s even further right on criminal justice than she is on other issues, which certainly doesn’t make her a favorite nominee in my book, although she’s made some decent labor decisions. (Jill linked a summary of her record in an earlier post, and will hopefully post more thoughts later, since she’s our resident legal expert and now FULLY ADMITTED TO THE NEW YORK BAR lawyer, whooo!)
Whatever else might be said about her politics, though, there’s no doubt that her life story would make this appointment a huge landmark in the history of the Supreme Court — and that her nomination will be a huge fight against those entrenched to keep the bench as white, male and conservative as possible.
More reading on this stuff:
Salon’s Glenn Greenwald taking apart the whisper campaign against Sotomayor
More on the same subject from the New Republic
More on the “domineering and dumb” double-standard-laden smear from Rebecca Traister at Broadsheet
- Sotomayor, identity and experience by Jill May 26, 2009
- As Supreme Court Nomination Speculation Heats Up, Keeping Our Eyes on the Bigger Prize by Jill May 14, 2009
- Facing Down Condescension and Lectures, Sotomayor Teaches Senators About Civics and More by Jill July 15, 2009
- Senate panel endorses Sotomayor by Jill July 28, 2009
- Actually, comparing Sonia Sotomayor to Sarah Palin is kind of insulting by Jill May 28, 2009