There’s a little bit of the “Wise Latina” in all of us

by Ryan Snyder

There’s a little bit of the ‘Wise Latina’ in all of us

Watching the opening day of the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor unfold should serve as a reminder to us all just how seriously senators take every opportunity to do a little political grandstanding.

Like great kabuki theatre, watching it was achance to step outside our normal reality for anentire day of singing, dancing, breathtaking featsof oratorical demagoguery and Sotomayor’sown painted-on face. If anyone watching had theprescience to make a drinking game out of everymention of judicial “empathy” and “activism,” you might havebeen blackout drunk by the time Sen. Russell Feingold compelledSotomayor to “answer the charges against her.” Unfortunately for Sotomayor, Gov. Mark Sanford of SouthCarolina is one Republican ineligible to weigh in on theconfirmation and given his record of strong support for Latinas,it would surely have been a boon to her cause. Still, the issuesworking against her confirmation made themselves known quiteearly, with Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, franklystating his distaste for Sotomayor’s empathetic tendencies andjurisprudence in general. His words came across like a not-sosubtlesalvo in the cultural war that his party has been fightingfor the last year, attacking statements Sotomayor alleged to havemade in jest regarding her notorious “Wise Latina” speech andher reference to circuit courts, “where policy is made.” Sessions,who was once rejected for a federal judgeship himself, seemedto believe that Sotomayor will take all white men’s jobs, fundabortions and put an end to private property. The problem with that reasoning is that justices make politicaldecisions every day. Any time a case reaches the bench, the issue athand has already become inherently political; it’s the last big dropin a rollercoaster of policy influencing. There’s no “correct” law inthese matters. If that were the case, it could merely be decided byone justice and not nine, which Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse went onto argue later in the day. Sessions stated outright that Sotomayor’srecord isn’t mainstream enough for his tastes (forget that themainstream gave us trans-fats, Spencer Pratt and Nickelback)just hours before the hearings and that if confirmed, her “liberalactivist” philosophy would blossom, but isn’t that just another wayof saying that he disagrees with her stances? Through Sessions mid-morning ramble, he did bring up onelegitimate point; it is quite possibly the most watched, bloggedabout, Tweeted and simply the most visible Supreme Courtconfirmation in the nation’s history. The issue of Sotomayor’scandor is one that hasn’t come into play in previous confirmationhearings to this degree and it’s opened up the debate as to whatextent judges and justices should proffer their own private feelingsfor public consumption, if at all. She’s opened a window intoan idea that I believe most in her position wouldn’t dare speak,but still privately hold. Supreme Court rulings are and havealways been rooted in the beliefs of the individuals who cast theirdecisions. Yes, it’s based on an unimaginable wealth of judicialexperience and legal scholarship, but in the end it’s a human beingcasting their decision. Overlooked in this discussion, however, is the angle that thisnomination is akin to an olive branch to the Republican Party fromthe majority; a chance to curry favor with an increasingly growingdemographic of Hispanic voters whose values overlap with that oftraditional WASPs more than most are willing to admit. Look nofurther than gay marriage referendums in California and you’ll seethat the defeat of one of the most progressive pieces of legislationto come through the most liberal state in the union was widely attributed to heavy Latino opposition. Sotomayor has never directly decided a case involving that particular issue and her sole opinion on abortion was in line with the pro-life movement, leaving some ambiguity on her stances regarding the political right’s hot buttons. Those who believe that political leanings naturally carry over from lower courts into what is effectively academic tenure should be reminded of Justice William Brennen, a man reviled by the National Liberal League for his religiously-based decisions who went on to be one of the most left-leaning members of the high court’s history.

The opening-day rhetoric diverged from lobbing political hand grenades to statements like, “Maybe I’ll confirm you, maybe I won’t,” and epic Freudian slips from Sen. Patrick Leahy (referring to her as “Justice,” among others). The “balls and strikes” digression attributed to Chief Justice John Roberts made for high comedy on an otherwise mindnumbing day. Roberts’ original statement claimed that there exists a “legal strike zone” that home plate judges call on a pitch-by-pitch basis, which would require one to overlook the entire pitching career of Tom Glavine to fully embrace. If anything, the first public comment of Sen. Al Franken was the most anticipated moment for myself, even if he did miss a genuine opportunity to make an impression by telling Sotomayor that she’s good enough, she’s smart enough and doggone it, people like her. It is all about the grandstanding after all.

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