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
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
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,
Court Pick Sets Off Pride,
and Some Concerns
May 27, 2009
The New York Times
By DAMIEN CAVE
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
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
“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
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
“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,