Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Really, who's playing "identity politics"?

Sonia Sotomayor is a Latina woman. True. Why does that mean that she couldn't possibly have been picked as a nominee for the US Supreme Court on her merits? I am deeply offended by the number of people claiming that this was only, and necessarily ONLY, an "identity politics" play. She couldn't possibly have been picked because she's an outstanding jurist with a keen intellect. She couldn't possibly be a real, substantive choice for the court. Instead, she has been labeled as an "affirmative action" pick. As far as I can tell, the only way for the nominee not to be branded with these labels, vaguely suggesting a racist motivation in the pick, would be to be a white man, or maybe a Ginsburg-like white woman. Isn't it just possible that this particular minority candidate gave the best interview? When will we allow that a minority candidate might actually be capable of advancing to the highest levels because she deserves it?

Can we at least all agree, no matter what else you think of the pick, that she is clearly one in that pool of maybe 50-100 people nationwide who are "qualified" to sit on the Supreme Court? Graduated summa cum laude from Princeton. Pretty impressive, no? Yale Law, where she was an editor of the law journal. Federal district court judge for 6 years. (Yay for saving baseball!) Federal appellate judge for 11 years. Taught at NYU and Columbia Law Schools. Those are some prestigious schools, prestigious jobs. Sitting on a federal appellate circuit court is a standard stepping-stone to the highest court. She's got the resume, right? Put that same resume under the name of John Smith and no one would think he only got the nod because he was a white male.

Sotomayor has been mentioned for a while now as a possibility for the high court, so she's not some unheard-of, maverick-y pick out of left field. (Get who I'm thinking of there?) Political nerds and court watchers who like to think about who might get the next Supreme Court spot have been thinking about her, even before the 2008 election. So she's well-educated, experienced, and has been on the radar for some time.

But to some, her pick is only about her ethnicity and her gender to the exclusion of all other things. I readily admit that I have said the next Supreme Court pick had to be a woman. And I do not back away from that statement. But that statement was always made with the knowledge that there are easily a dozen women (probably an underestimate) who are in that top pool of candidates who are unquestionably fit for the high court. Sotomayor is unquestionably one of those dozen. Given the absolute gender imbalance in the history of the court, I feel that is such a dire problem that it simply had to be addressed. But I never wanted to pick just any old, stupid broad with a law degree. My point was that because there are numerous, highly-qualified, brilliant jurists of the female persuasion, there would be no good reason for bypassing a woman to put man #109 on the court instead of woman #3.

Frankly, it's just a bonus that she would be the first Latina justice. To me, it's actually kind of heart-breaking that we haven't yet progressed to a point where we don't still have these kinds of firsts. It's also heart-breaking to learn how many people assume that a Latina woman can't possibly be qualified to do the job for which she is nominated. Yes, she is an appealing candidate because she would bring some much-needed diversity to the panel of nine. No one, though, should make the insulting mistake of thinking she can't be fit for the job because she's only a Latina woman.

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