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Wise Words Cause Fearful Notions

by Serena Garcia

The ascension of Justice Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court of the United States in fall 2009 seemed to hang on hyped reaction to statements that she made in a speech eight years ago, even as much of her impressive record as a judge for nearly two decades was ignored. The most interesting aspect of the "wise Latina" controversy, as it came to be known, may be the amount of fear that the elevation of this talented woman caused for a certain segment of the population.

“Sotomayor was vilified for choosing to call herself a woman of color, a proud Puerto Rican, a wise Latina,” wrote Liza Sabater, an online commentator.

As a judge on federal district and appellate courts, Sotomayor was known for thorough, careful and considered deliberation and even-handed rulings. Generally, however, it’s expected that influential decision makers say that their judgment is not based on personal experience, background, education, sex, gender or class.

In the speech that generated the controversy, Sotomayor said:

“We are a nation that takes pride in our ethnic diversity, recognizing its importance in shaping our society and in adding richness to its existence. Yet, we simultaneously insist that we can and must function and live in a race and color-blind way that ignore these very differences …. I would hope that 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…. (T)o understand takes time and effort, something that not all people are willing to give…. Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see. My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage.” (Excerpts from “A Latina Judge’s Voice” by Sonia Sotomayor, the Judge Mario G. Olmos Memorial Lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, 2001.)

Sandra Guerra Thompson, a University of Houston Law Center professor, said, "I think what she meant was that people's experience can qualify them to make decisions. Women may have a different experience than men, and so in some cases it might be an advantage to be a woman. And likewise, a Latina would have a different experience than someone of a different race.”

Fear Factor

Conservative pundits and legislators immediately leaped to attack.
CNN’s Lou Dobbs and other critics -- many of whom are forceful anti-immigration proponents -- doubted her fairness. Implicit in their view was the insistence that, as a Latina, she would show favor to immigrants. “Anti-immigration advocates and restrictionist organizations have been quick to use Sotomayor’s ties to Latino civil rights groups to suggest she would be overly empathetic to immigrants in cases that reach the Supreme Court,” wrote Daphne Eviatar in The Washington Independent.

Her record was distorted in some of their accounts. Jon Feere, senior research fellow for the Center for Immigration Studies, a right-wing think tank that supports restrictions on immigration, asserted that she ruled “against the government – and for the alien – over 60 percent of the time.” Feere later admitted that he examined only slightly more than three dozen cases in which Sotomayor wrote the opinion, and ignored the far greater number in which she signed an opinion but it was written by another judge.

By contrast, Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), who supported Sotomayor, examined 955 rulings from her 17 years on the bench and reported that her complete record on immigration showed that she ruled for the immigrant petitioner in only eight percent of the cases, and for asylum applicants in 17 percent of cases, equal to the average for judges on her court. “These findings should put to rest any doubts about Judge Sotomayor’s fidelity to the rule of law,” Schumer said in a statement. “Even in immigration cases, which would most test the so-called ‘empathy factor,’ Judge Sotomayor’s record is well within the judicial mainstream.”

Sotomayor was grilled extensively by Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sabater described the questioning as an “unfortunate spectacle of bigotry in which every single white Republican male senator participated …(T)hese senators were testing her ability to bear up under public degradation as a test of worth because she's Latina.”

She was confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, with only one Republican vote. In the full Senate vote on August 6, nine Republicans supported her, giving her 68 affirmative votes, more than enough to approve her nomination. She became the first person of Latin descent to serve on the high court and only the third woman.

Regardless of the harsh accusations or the praise, Justice Sotomayor’s nomination forced the country to reckon with both hope and fear. For too long, Latinas have been subjected to racial, sexual, socio-economic and educational stereotypes. Justice Sotomayor’s presence on the nation’s highest court changes that.

October 29, 2009

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Serena Garcia is Communications Coordinator of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective in Atlanta. Her previous work includes 16 years as a journalist, editor, public relations coordinator and workshop facilitator for nonprofit organizations, government and ethnic media.

Also see Birthers and Birchers: Hiding Behind Stars and Stripes by Loretta J. Ross in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See "Mujeres Take Back the Culture With Old Photos" by Graciela Sanchez in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


Darius Crump posted: 2011-05-16 14:42:14

Great article Serena. Impressive. Keep up the great work. Your the best at what you do.

Ana posted: 2013-09-06 12:46:16

You left off of AMERICA. Kinda changes your play on words a ltlite dontcha think? Wasn't this whole states rights vs national supremacy resolved in the courts a long time ago in favor of the national supremacy side? Isn't Carl Wimmer and the Patrick Henry caucus thing something that was settled a couple hundred years ago?Although I skew liberal on social issues, I still haven't figured out what the big deal is on local police enforcing immigration law, or at least considering it in their difficult jobs of dealing with crime, some of which seems to be the work of people in the country illegally. What difference does it make who the police work for, a cop is a cop and a crime is a crime and always the two should intertwine, que no?

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