The confirmation process for Judge Sonia Sotomayor has demonstrated once again that we have a long way to go in achieving racial and gender neutrality in America. Why else would a high achiever like Sotomayor be forced to reassure people that her background wouldn’t affect her decisions as a judge? Has a white male ever been required to issue such a declaration prior to assuming any office?
Even the New York Times has written an editorial that insists upon a higher scrutiny for Sotomayor than any prior nominee to the Supreme Court has been subjected to, as if the very phrase “Latina Judge” would send shudders through American society. Perhaps it raises the specter of a jurist who would be sympathetic to allowing millions of illegal immigrants across the border.
It is especially saddening when I recall the contrasting confirmation hearings of Chief Justice Roberts a few years ago, when conservative and liberal commentators alike lavished praise on the candidate’s impeccable pedigree.
It seemed to me then that anything Roberts said in his confirmation hearings was interpreted in his favor, as long as it was not overtly reactionary. Yet, if Congress had studied the memos Robert wrote as associate counsel to Ronald Reagan, it could have predicted his latest decision favoring white firefighters in New Haven; for he wrote back then that “affirmative action required the recruiting of inadequately prepared candidates.” He also narrowly interpreted Title IX which gives equal rights for women in college sports and rejected proportional racial representation in voting.
Moreover, Roberts is a self-professed “originalist,” which means that he interprets the constitution according to the norms of the society in which the founding fathers, who were all white male property owners, constructed it in 1777. “Originalist” therefore translates into “white male retrogressive values.” What could be more biased than that?
Yet, many congressional representatives are using a double standard in telling Sonia Sotomayor that she should not use her experience and perspective as a Latina in giving her opinions from the bench.
If Sotomayor has a defect, it is that, unlike Roberts, she has been candid about her origins and their influence on her. After growing up in the Bronx, after battling prejudice and inequality, after building an illustrious career, she perhaps felt she had earned the right to speak her mind. I, for one, applaud her for it.
But I suspect there is another subtext to Sotomayor’s story; namely that she is a single woman and therefore severely handicapped. Battling Type 1 diabetes for 47 years has been a cinch for this woman, but not fighting the stigma of being a middle-aged single woman. David Brooks’ column in the New York Times labels her a workaholic, and points out her inability to sustain romantic relationships. This focus on her personal life has highlighted yet another double standard applied to women nominees versus men.
Shouldn’t her personal life be irrelevant to her performance as a Supreme Court justice? Why did her questioners feel free to take the liberty of making patronizing remarks unrelated to her professional career?
It seemed as though Sotomayor felt pressured to bend over backwards to please the ruling elite in Congress, to the point of having to avow that she would resist empathy while judging from the bench and that she would interpret the constitution strictly, and follow precedent. Through the three days of hearings, she sat impassively, delivering emotionless answers, that gave away little of her inner thoughts.
I wish Sotomayor could have defied the Republicans in Congress by attesting to the quality that Obama, while nominating her, named as essential in a Supreme Court Justice, namely, empathy.
Perhaps Sotomayor believed she had no choice. Perhaps women still need to hide their genuine feelings and opinions in order to rise to the highest ranks in this country. And Sotomayor’s ethnic background made it even more imperative that she “fit in” in a predominantly Caucasian court.
The good news is that to get confirmed, Sotomayor does not need the votes of those Republicans whose attacks on her have bordered on racism.
The bad news is that we have reached a new low in the evolution of the Supreme Court in which no future nominee will be able to articulate any passionate opinions on any subject, but will have to emulate instead the Roberts model of cold blooded, calculated, covert, right wing activism.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visit www.saritasarvate.com