The White House has attempted to finesse Sonia Sotormayor’s 32 words about a “wise Latina woman” etc. etc. by saying she would probably have chosen different words if she had a chance at a redo. But the release by the White House of a collection of her speeches and opinions (and her 173-page completed questionnaire) suggests that this wasn’t a case of careless use of words one time, but part of a fairly standard stump speech that she used a number of times between 1994 and 2001 and beyond. John Dickinson at Slate, hardly a right-wing crazy, thinks the White House may have misfired by suggesting that Republicans didn’t complain about a similar phrase (without the “Latina”) in a 1994 speech when she was up for the 2nd Circuit job, so why are they whining now? But the fact that she seems to have had that opinion for many years and expressed it in public may be a bigger problem in the confirmation hearings.
Looking at the speeches also suggests a keen awareness on Judge Sotormayor’s part of her ethnic background and how it sometimes made her feel like a “stranger in a strange land” (beginning at Princeton in the 1980s, which wouldn’t be a surprise) even as she was rising to the top of her profession. “The Latina in me is an ember that will burn forever,” she told Hofstra students in 1996. Her awareness seems coupled with a determination to be a good role model and urge other Hispanics to apply themselves seriously to advancement.
In my view, none of this makes her a “racist” as Rush Limbaugh wants to insist, nor does it disqualify her for confirmation. Her record in discrimination cases also suggests that she wasn’t automatically sympathetic to claims of discrimination. Still, I regret (though I think I understand) the gender/ethnic tribalism in which she chose to participate.
I still think the talk-radio mob — recognizing that the medium thrives on controversy and outrage even if it has to be self-manufactured — made a big mistake by attacking her so relentlessly. She’s going to be confirmed anyway and she won’t affect the balance on the court (she might even be more conservative than Souter on some criminal-justice issues, arising from her experience as a prosecutor). While acquiescing in her inevitability, Senate Republicans could have presented themselves as thoughtful critics of her approach to judging without emphasizing her gender or ethnic background. But it’s probably too late for that now.