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History > 2009 > USA > Hispanics (I)





Judging Sonia Sotomayor


May 31, 2009
The New York Times


Supreme Court nominees must be fully vetted on a wide range of issues, but most of the ones being raised about Sonia Sotomayor are not among them.

The first Hispanic nominee to the court is being called racist. She is being attacked as not smart enough, as too abrasive (a description often applied to women who speak their minds in public life). There have even been reports that critics have taken aim at her taste for Puerto Rican food.

It is time to elevate the discussion to where it belongs: the Constitution and the role of the judiciary.

The talking point conservatives pushed hardest last week — to the alarm finally of some Republican senators — was a 2001 speech in which Judge Sotomayor said she hoped 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.”

The context matters: she was pointing out that throughout history even esteemed white male justices like Oliver Wendell Holmes voted to uphold race and sex discrimination. She said accidents of birth inform people’s views, but judges must strive to look beyond them.

Several justices, including some conservatives, have made similar comments. Samuel Alito, an Italian-American, said at his confirmation hearing: “When I get a case about discrimination, I have to think about people in my own family who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of religion or because of gender. And I do take that into account.” Clarence Thomas told the Senate he could “walk in the shoes of the people who are affected by what the court does.”

Critics have questioned Judge Sotomayor’s intellect — she graduated from Princeton summa cum laude and from Yale Law School — and have said her written opinions lack flourish. Justice Alito had a similar résumé, yet there was little talk of his intellectual capacity. If writing bland opinions were a disqualifier, there would be no former appeals court judges on the Supreme Court.

Some of Judge Sotomayor’s detractors seem uncomfortable with her Puerto Rican heritage. Tom Tancredo, a former Republican congressman, raged about her ties to the National Council of La Raza, calling it, absurdly, a “Latino K.K.K.” A writer on the National Review Web site fretted that the accent on the final syllable of Sotomayor might mean she is insufficiently assimilated.

Another attack is that Judge Sotomayor is too combative on the bench. It is not hard to find lawyers who will say, usually anonymously, that a judge questioned them too sharply. In this case, this criticism has been more than outweighed by colleagues, lawyers and former clerks who have attested to her judicial temperament and good character.

These broadsides are a distraction. Despite her long service as a federal judge, Judge Sotomayor’s record on many important issues is sparse. Senators should question her about her general approach to the Constitution and to judging. They need to learn more about her thoughts on the right to privacy — a critical doctrine that provides the basis for abortion rights — on church-state separation and on other subjects.

Supreme Court nominees should not go into specifics about cases they might judge. But in recent years, the Senate has allowed them to be far too opaque about their broader views on the Constitution and judging.

Clearly, conservative groups and Republican elected officials see this nomination as a way to score points off wedge issues that excite their base. It diminishes everyone when a nomination process deteriorates into character assassination and ethnic intolerance.

Judging Sonia Sotomayor, NYT, 31.5.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/31/opinion/31sun1.html






For Hispanics,

Court Pick Sets Off Pride,

and Some Concerns


May 27, 2009
The New York Times


MIAMI — The lunch crowd at El Palacio de Los Jugos on Tuesday could not agree on the appropriate level of excitement. Cubans, Colombians, Dominicans — they all said they were pleased to hear Judge Sonia Sotomayor accept her selection for the United States Supreme Court with a speech that included the rolling “r’s” of her Puerto Rican roots.

But do not assume that Judge Sotomayor’s identity will define her, said Luis Home, 35, a Colombian-American technology recruiter. “It’s like saying if you’re Hispanic, you’re going to be a superhero for Hispanics. That’s not true.”

Mr. Home’s friend, Amaury Lendeborg, 30, disagreed, somewhat. “A cultural connection will always win,” said Mr. Lendeborg, a Dominican-American.

And so the debate begins.

In restaurants, homes and offices across the country, Hispanics responded to Judge Sotomayor’s selection with a puff of pride, some gratitude and considerable discussion. In interviews in Miami, Los Angeles and New York, many said this kind of recognition from Washington — Democratic or Republican — was long overdue given the growing size of the Hispanic voting bloc.

The hope, they said, is that her hardscrabble life and accomplishments will add prestige to the public image and self-image of Hispanics.

“This is a Jackie Robinson moment,” said Assemblyman Adriano Espaillat, the first Dominican elected to the New York Legislature. “Puerto Ricans, who have been Hispanic pioneers in so many fields in this country, have broken another barrier for all of us.”

And yet, a defensiveness could also be found. Many Hispanics seemed eager to warn Democrats that a single nomination — of a judge whom most Americans are still getting to know — might not be enough to win unending Hispanic loyalty come Election Day.

Some of those interviewed said Hispanic appointments mattered less than issues affecting them directly, like immigration and the economy.

“There’s not going to be this enormous outpouring of ethnic triumph,” said Roberto Suro, the author of “Strangers Among Us: Latino Lives in a Changing America.”

Rather, Mr. Suro said, Judge Sotomayor’s selection represents one significant step toward recasting the way Hispanics are viewed.

“It’s been easy to connect illegal immigration with Hispanic identity,” he said. ”This puts it in a very different context.”

Judge Sotomayor, in her brief appearance with President Obama, emphasized her poor roots in the Bronx, and praised her mother for working long hours so she could go to private school.

That history lies at the center of her appeal for Carlos A. Cerna, 74, a Salvadoran-American who chatted with fellow retirees from his home country outside a restaurant in Los Angeles. Within hours of her selection, Mr. Cerna had already read up on Judge Sotomayor. He recited the details of her childhood and Ivy League schooling, as if rattling off the qualifications of a sports star.

“Of course, it would have been great to have someone of Central American origin,” Mr. Cerna said. “But she got picked, and I think it’s very good.”

Other Hispanics also lamented that the first Supreme Court justice of Hispanic ancestry did not have roots in their own community. Here in Miami, Ana de Pozo, 24, finished her rice and beans at El Palacio de Los Jugos, and said, “We are waiting now for a Cuban.”

In Los Angeles, Mario Trujillo, president of the Mexican American Bar Association, said he had sent a letter to the Obama administration on behalf of Justice Carlos R. Moreno, a Mexican-American on the California Supreme Court who had been among those considered for the United States Supreme Court.

But the historic moment seemed mostly to temper nationalistic pride. Mr. Trujillo praised Judge Sotomayor’s intellect and accomplishments, then welcomed her point of view.

“She has the true Latino experience, not only in her last name,” he said. “Look at her upbringing back East. It is an emotional story.”

Perhaps not surprisingly given Judge Sotomayor’s Bronx roots, Hispanic New Yorkers were especially emotional. Puerto Ricans — the city’s largest Hispanic group, with 790,000 people — have sometimes clashed with newer arrivals to neighborhoods they long dominated, but that seemed to be forgotten for a moment.

Assemblyman Espaillat said he had stopped by his mother’s home in Washington Heights on his way to Albany, and “the first thing she told me when I walked in the door was that the Latina was nominated for the Supreme Court.”

How much the excitement will benefit Democrats in the scramble for the Hispanic vote remains to be seen. But if recent history is a guide, Republicans are at a disadvantage.

Four years after President George W. Bush reached a historic high for Republicans, winning about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in his re-election, Mr. Obama won 67 percent of the vote in November to Senator John McCain’s 31 percent. Swing states like Florida and New Mexico tilted to his column in large part because of Latino turnout

Many Hispanics have been expecting a bold thank you from Mr. Obama ever since November, and on Tuesday, many said they wanted more than Judge Sotomayor.

At a table outside Miami Dade College here, a group of mostly Hispanic students said the focus on the judge’s identity felt outdated and obscured more important issues like the economy.

“Maybe at first, you’re like, ‘Oh, she’s Puerto Rican, cool,’ ” said Ozzy Garcia, 23, a computer engineering student born in Cuba and raised in the Dominican Republic. “After that, it doesn’t matter.”

Mr. Suro, a former director of the Pew Hispanic Center, said the selection would buy the president a little bit of “breathing room” on immigration overhaul, an issue that Hispanics desperately want to see addressed.

And Henry Solano, the interim president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said the Democrats would need to make even more Hispanic appointments before the community could be relied on for votes.

“I don’t know if any one decision will make or break the relationship an elected official has with any community,” Mr. Solano said.

Still, there were a few early signs of a shift. Mr. Cerna, the Salvadoran-American, said, “Obama has taken into account Latinos, and the other administration did not keep watch.”

Even Mr. Home, the Colombian at El Palacio del Los Jugos, who is a Republican, said the pick probably won Mr. Obama a few votes in the next election.

“He knows by appointing a Latin woman, they’re going to have that nice, fuzzy feeling,” he said.


Randal C. Archibold contributed reporting from Los Angeles; Fernanda Santos from New York; and Yolanne Almanzar from Miami.

For Hispanics, Court Pick Sets Off Pride, and Some Concerns, NYT, 27.5.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/27/us/politics/27latino.html