I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Judge Sotomayor and hearing her speak on several occasions. When I clerked at the Second Circuit, our chambers went out to lunch with her chambers. A few years later (I believe it was 2006), she was the recipient of the Yale Latino Alumni Association’s public service award. And then last fall she came up to Cornell to speak with the Latino Law Students Association and I had the privilege of having dinner with her.
Judge Sotomayor is every bit as inspiring in person as her life story suggests. She’s modest, plain-spoken, down-to-earth and insightful. During her visit to Cornell, she spent hours with the law students in the student lounge. Her Q&A session went nearly an hour over its scheduled time. She never looked at her watch. She just kept answering the students’ questions and even asking them a few questions of her own. In the end, we had to pry her away from them to keep from losing our dinner reservation.
Watching her on the bench during my clerkship, what was particularly impressive to me was that, after years of working as a lawyer and then as a district judge, she had retained the ability to be offended by injustice. It’s all too rare a feat in our profession.
Republicans will attack this extraordinary woman at their own peril. Early attempts to paint her as a “liberal activist” (whatever that means) will not stick. Those who take the time to read her opinions will find them to be straight-forward, thorough, and well written. She’s a tempermentally moderate judge from a tempermentally moderate court.
Perhaps the most offensive criticism to arise to date has been the charge that she is somehow not intellectually up to snuff. I find this mind boggling. This is a woman who graduated summa (and phi beta kappa) from Princeton, and then went on to do extremely well at the Yale Law School (where she made the Law Journal). She excelled in practice and then as a federal judge. Some have suggested that the criticism is so off-base that it must be rooted in racism. That’s not a charge that I throw around lightly, but in this case it may have some merit. Although it originated with some anonymous smears in a Jeff Rosen article, the criticism has been picked up by the right and was repeatedly most recently last night by that unrepentant racialist and openly anti-Latino bigot Pat Buchanan (he of the “scrub stock” comment about Daniel Ortega a few weeks back). And it certainly draws its power from the standard stereotypes Latinos have to live with day in and day out, no matter how much we have accomplished.
Perhaps, though, the smear is rooted as much in class bias as in racism. Like many of us who came to the Ivy League from more modest backgrounds, Sotomayor speaks normal English in normal sentences, as opposed to the baroque, paragraph-long orations I frequently heard from my prep-schooled colleagues at Yale Law. Those who like to speak in well-formed paragraphs frequently confuse their strange way of talking for intelligence, and often make the mistake of assuming that those who don’t share their rarified style of oral communication are simply dull. This usually ends up working to the advantage of those who are so maligned, since people are constantly underestimating them. And I think the same will ultimately prove true in Sotomayor’s case. As they get to know her throughout the confirmation process, the American people will see that Judge Sotomayor is more than up to the task of being a Supreme Court justice. And Republicans who make the mistake of believing she is unintelligent will find her running circles around them at her confirmation hearings — and she’ll do it in her typical, plain-spoken, down-to-earth way.
UPDATE: The suggestion that the right is going to use racial appeals in their opposition to Sotomayor got a boost from several recent posts. First, Mark Krikorian complains about the propriety of Sotomayor pronouncing her name correctly. Curt Levy says she was picked because of her race and gender. Tom Tancredo (!) accuses her of being “a racist.” Michael Goldfarb then chimes in with this post, which digs into Sotomayor’s college activism in the 1970s (I’m not kidding) to simultaneously try to paint her as a radical and as the lifelong beneficiary of affirmative action. This will, of course, backfire, and simply serve to bring more Latinos around to the conclusion that the modern Republican party is no place for them.