Joke of A Hearing
pblackwell, Thu, July 16th, 2009
So it was left to Tom Coburn, the Republican senator from Oklahoma, to provide the low point of the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill.
As the Supreme Court nominee explained a strange hypothetical scenario involving guns and self-defense, and what would be legal and what wouldn’t be, Coburn suddenly blurted out “You’ll have lots of ‘splainin’ to do”, Ricky Ricardo-style.
It was surely in jest, but can you possibly imagine Coburn, or any of the senators on the Judiciary Committee panel, giving out that kind of flippant remark to, say, John Roberts?
Yes, it’s a rhetorical question, but also a relevant one. For the hearings over Sotomayor, a mere formality because she has more than enough votes for Senate confirmation to succeed David Souter, have been a fascinating glimpse into our power structure – and the mentality of those within it.
When President Obama chose Sotomayor, it sure seemed like a slam dunk, or a home run, or a touchdown, or some other tired sports cliché trotted out in politics for any decision or move.
From a humble Puerto Rican background in the Bronx, Sotomayor worked (a lot) up the ladder. She got to Princeton and Yale Law, did time as an attorney and has spent 17 years on the federal bench, appointed to two different spots by a Republican (George H.W. Bush) and a Democrat (Bill Clinton).
This glittering record meant a lot of chances to speak at a lot of law schools across the country. So in 2001, Sotomayor went to Stanford and centered her talk on discrimination cases, based on race and gender. The gist was that, while their backgrounds might guide a judge’s thinking in a case, the law must always come first.
Somewhere in that talk, the words “wise Latina woman” came out. Eight years later, cue the Republican Noise Machine, out to convince one and all that those out-of-context words made Sotomayor racist, maybe sexist, but certainly something that must never stain the almighty realm of the Supreme Court.
And how was all this covered? Predictably enough, the “wise Latina woman” remarks were harped on day and night right up until the hearings, with almost no one in the mainstream media bothering to provide context. Just as the Noise Machine would want.
Thus, by the time Sotomayor sat down in the Judiciary Committee hearing room last Monday to begin her grilling, you knew what to expect. First, a whole lot of grandiose Senate speeches from both sides (that means you, Al Franken – welcome!), followed by an obscene amount of focus on a few words from a speech.
Leading this push against Sotomayor was the distinguished gentleman from Alabama, one Jeff Sessions. He didn’t mind harping on Sotomayor’s choice of words (even she admitted it was a bit shabby). If only Sessions’ own history were so clean and pristine.
Back in 1986, the middle of the Reagan years, Sessions was nominated for a federal judgeship, only to get rejected by the Senate because it turned out that Sessions had a strange habit of saying condescending things like “boy” to African-American lawyers.
Yet here Sessions (and many of his GOP colleagues) sits, in judgment of Sotomayor, saying that any attempt to bring one’s own background into the process of judicial decision-making is wrong. This especially holds true if, say, you are black, or Latino, or a woman.
They all miss a fundamental point, of course. Ideally, justice should be blind to who you are, what you look like or where you are from. Unfortunately, the law, an inanimate object, is applied by human beings that cannot help but draw from their backgrounds, whatever they may be.
What’s more, it’s impossible to predict how that human nature will impact decisions. A near-unanimous Supreme Court in 1896 upheld segregated facilities in Plessy v. Ferguson, and a unanimous Court struck it down with Brown v. Board of Education 58 years later. And an all-male court upheld a woman’s reproductive rights with Roe v. Wade.
H0w telling is it, too, that when senators finally got around to question Sotomayor on a relevant topic – namely, the actual cases she ruled on – they singled out the recent New Haven firefighter’s case, overturned by a divided Supreme Court. The relevancy and constitutionality of the law hardly mattered – the fact that white males were the “victims” did.
These hearings remind us, yet again, the extra hoops through which people like Sonia Sotomayor have to jump. They have to be twice as good – no, make that five times as good – and even then, their path to success can get tripped up through the slightest blunder, self-inflicted or otherwise.
Instead of applauding Sotomayor for her climb, some would rather make the climb steeper through artificial means. Like it or not, folks, she’s on her way to the Supreme Court – and the more wisdom she has, the better.