The minute Judge Sonia Sotomayor rose from President Obama’s shortlist for the Supreme Court to become his official nominee, the conservative smear campaign against her went from simmer to full boil. Curt Levey of the Committee for Justice repeated unsourced accusations, of the kind first made in an article by Jeffrey Rosen in The New Republic, that Sotomayor is “an intellectual lightweight” who was “picked because she was a woman and Hispanic.” National Review‘s Ramesh Ponnuru dubbed her “Obama’s Harriet Miers,” while his colleague Mark Krikorian whined that “putting the emphasis on the final syllable of Sotomayor is unnatural in English.” Politico reported that Republicans were weighing how to attack a “Latina single mother,” and Mike Huckabee claimed that “Maria Sotomayor” comes from the “far left” and would unduly let her “feelings” influence her decisions.
Every element of this right-wing assault is false. Judge Sotomayor graduated summa cum laude from Princeton and served as an editor of the Yale Law Journal (as did Justice Samuel Alito). Her seventeen years of experience on federal courts vastly outstrips the combined years of experience John Roberts, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas had when they were nominated–seven in total. As the author of more than 700 opinions, she has proven herself to be a pragmatic centrist cut from the same cloth as Obama. Indeed, unlike Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Justice Thurgood Marshall, she was not a central member of the legal movements to advance women’s and minorities’ rights. For example, she once voted down a constitutional challenge to the global gag rule on abortion. Moreover, she has on occasion disappointed progressives with rulings in favor of corporations.
Finally, it should be noted that Judge Sotomayor’s first name is, in fact, Sonia and that she has no children. Of course, to a conservative movement bent on running a character assassination based on ugly racist stereotypes, these are inconvenient details. In the long run, however, a party that cannot be bothered to learn or pronounce the names of Latinos, the fastest-growing population in the United States, is surely doomed. Beyond these gaffes, though, there is a principle at stake. Should the law endeavor, as it has admirably done for the past sixty years, to remedy racial and gender inequality? Is that vision of justice compatible with the Constitution?
The Supreme Court’s archconservative wing has made it clear that it intends to be the party of No. In one of the earliest tests of the Roberts court, it voted to make it exceedingly difficult for women who had been discriminated against to sue their employers. And in a case the court heard recently on the legality of a key part of the Voting Rights Act, which more than any other piece of legislation is responsible for minority representation in Congress, Roberts, who has emerged as the leading opponent of any legal consideration of race, scornfully argued that the act was unnecessary. If confirmed, Sotomayor will not rule on these particular cases, and there is no way to know how she would rule on similar matters.
Remember, though, that when Senator Obama voted against Roberts’s confirmation, he worried not about Roberts’s intellect or experience but about his “heart.” When nominating Judge Sotomayor, President Obama praised her “empathy.” Sotomayor has spoken movingly of how the “richness of her experiences” as a “wise Latina woman” could help her craft better decisions. Conservatives might want to think twice before using that against her.