First published in HispanicLA.com, June 20, 2009.
What did she say ??
I spent hours watching the Senate Judiciary confirmation hearings of Sonia Sotomayor, who is about to become the next Supreme Court associate justice.
I believe I paid attention.
But after four long days of Q&A, I was unable to find even one commentary or coherent explanation of Judge Sotomayor’s origins, philosophy, history, or world view.
The entire episode was a labyrinth of code words, a game of hide-and-seek, mountains of words, all intended to achieve one thing: not to stumble or trip, avoid alienating anyone, in order to ingratiate herself with the Republican minority.
And those nosy senators who, even before the hearings began, declared their commitment to unmask Sotomayor as a Liberal, an unabashed radical, an anti-white racist? They did the same thing.
Speak for the sake of speaking. Avoid concrete meaning for all but their own crowd.
In classic commedia del arte there is a character who shouts, insults, says some half-truths to those on stage and then turns to the public with a grimace and, a wink, as if saying: “Did you watch me? I showed them!”
During the hearings, the senators’ heads were turned toward the public, with a constant wink. Never toward Sotomayor. Never engaged in a direct conversation with her.
Maybe it wasn’t necessary.
Usually, as in the cases of Judges John Roberts and Samuel Alito, the candidates speak in murmuring tones, or provide repetitious answers or unnecessary embellishments, gaining time in their non-communication efforts.
Neither Roberts nor Alito revealed to their Democratic grillers their positions on issues of the American culture wars: abortion (both are opposed); the right to bear arms (they are for it); states’ rights versus the federal government, and the like.
But they never even pretended to create an impression that they were not who they are: right-wing conservatives. They never pretended to be liberals.
Sotomayor, on the other hand…
It’s true that Republicans repeated the same questions ad nauseum, using the same words again and again, winking non-stop with code words filled with prejudice. “Judge, are you a temperamental woman? Yes or no? Are you hysterical, perhaps?” And, “When you mention the advantage of being a wise Latina, isn’t it true that you despise the white male? Do you confess to being a racist in reverse?”
For them the presidential campaign continues. They cannot avoid this; if they stop running they lose their reason for being.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina inquires whether Judge Sotomayor has a temperament problem and quotes lawyers’ opinions against her. Senator John Kyl from Arizona asks repeatedly if there always is a legal basis for her decisions, or whether they are based on “your feelings?”
They are provoking her.
When they say “your feelings” are interfering with applying the law, they mean “your feelings as a woman and as a Latina” will interfere with the law of the traditional white male hierarchy.
Over and over, they state, “Here is the Constitution, and here are the later precedents; what do you prefer, Judge? Isn’t that true that the Constitution and every word in it is sacrosanct?” They laid traps, not because they wanted Sotomayor to fall, but because they wanted their constituencies to know that they laid these traps.
It’s all the same: Sotomayor fell into the traps. She answered the questions and the answers were like manna for the Republicans: “Yes, my task is to do whatever Congress wants me to do. Yes, my sympathies, my experiences, my opinions, my past, my family from Puerto Rico to my left, the Spanish, the poor, the minorities, immigrants… none of them will have anything to do with my decisions. I will always apply the law you legislate. To the letter.”
And after four days of listening to her repeating that mantra, I believed her.
If this is the case, what do we need “qualified” judges for, even if they are “wise Latinas”? If this is the case, we only need a robot, some computer software to hear cases and decide which law to apply in every case.
But the truth is that judges do decide while considering to their ideals. The organizations they belong to, ideologies formed over their lifetimes, the individuals who influenced them. Regrettably, sometimes they even decide accordingly to what the person who nominated them believes or the principles of the political party they identify with, as in the 2000 election debacle in which 5 out of 9 Supreme Court members gave the presidency to George W. Bush, making such a travesty of their interpretation of the law that they stated was a sui generis case, never to be repeated or become precedent.
When legislation is the product of compromise between lawmakers it can be confusing and even contradictory. The judges then clarify the law because they must. Thus, they complete the job of Congress which is to legislate.
I know it, you know it , Sotomayor and her inquisitors know it.
With Sotomayor on the bench Obama fulfills two promises; to put the first Latino and the third woman on the Supreme Court.
Maybe he is also putting a Conservative there. Or maybe I am wrong.