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Sonia Sotomayor | Below The Fold
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Posts Tagged ‘Sonia Sotomayor’

The Tragedy of Shelby Steele

Monday, June 8th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

Shelby Steele has a column in today’s Wall Street Journal that is, amazingly, quite possibly the single most pathetic thing Steele has ever written. Adam Serwer says that Steele has gotten “predictable,” but I’m not sure that’s right. For one thing, Steele has always been predictable. He’s only got one trick, after all. No, at this point Steele has just become dishonest. If before you could make the case that he was being obtuse or making problematic, broad based claims, reading this effort, there’s simply no way to argue Steele doesn’t understand exactly what he’s doing in getting basic facts wrong, things he’s gotten wrong before.

For example, Steele continues to downplay President Obama with the same rhetoric he was using before the election, even implying that he was correct then:

I have called Mr. Obama a bound man because he cannot win white support without bargaining and he cannot maintain minority support without playing the very identity politics that injure him with whites. The latter form of politics is grounded in being what I call a challenger — i.e., someone who presumes that whites are racist until they prove otherwise by granting preferences of some kind to minorities. Whites quietly seethe at challengers like Jesse Jackson who use the moral authority of their race’s historic grievance to muscle for preferential treatment. Mr. Obama has been loved precisely because he was an anti-Jackson, a bargainer who grants them innocence before asking for their support.

Now, the most obvious intellectual problem here is that Steele doesn’t note that the sub-title to his “bound man” critique included a cliam that Obama “can’t win,” which would seem to be significantly undermined by the fact that Obama, you know, won. And what’s more, Steele isn’t even making an explanation as to why he was really right, even though he seemed to be spectacularly wrong, he’s just disappearing the fact altogether. Secondly, Steele is continuing the rhetoric from his post-election column that Obama somehow seduced white people into voting for him, even though Obama didn’t improve much on the level of support John Kerry or Al Gore enjoyed among white voters. Again, it’s not that Steele is “wrong,” it’s that he’s explaining why something happened, even though it didn’t happen. And he’s just pretending no one ever pointed out that he was just wrong about the facts of the matter (which he might believe, since it really wouldn’t make sense for Steele to read criticism of his parlor act, would it?).

Even more dishonestly, Steele rips Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” remark out of context even more egregiously than most other conservatives have:

Throughout her career Judge Sotomayor has demonstrated a Hispanic chauvinism so extreme that it sometimes crosses into outright claims of racial supremacy, as in 2001 when she said in a lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, “a wise Latina woman . . . would more often than not reach a better conclusion [as a judge] than a white male.”

Steele doesn’t even note that the broader context of the speech related to racial discrimination cases, he eliminates Sotomayor’s reference to the differing experiences of people of different identity groups. So yes, in this context, you certainly could come away thinking that Sotomayor was making the claim that Latina women are inherently superior to white men, but this isn’t Sotomayor’s quote. It’s an edited snippet of the quote that drastically changes the meaning of the remark. Steele isn’t even attempting to provide an accurate depiction of Sotomayor’s opinion, he’s hacking her words up in such a way as to change what she said, and he knows it. So far, this is the first time I’ve seen someone of any political persuasion edit out the “experiences” part of the quote, and it’s not as though this hasn’t been remarked upon heavily. This is just intellectual dishonesty of the highest form, which shouldn’t really surprise anyone who’s familiar with the bulk of Steele’s work, but what’s really striking is the degree to which Shelby isn’t even trying to hide it anymore. It’s right out there, and it’s extremely lazy in its construction.

Of course, this is still Shelby Steele, so the cheap racism is still there because, well, that’s what Shelby Steele exists to provide:

The Sotomayor nomination commits the cardinal sin of identity politics: It seeks to elevate people more for the political currency of their gender and ethnicity than for their individual merit. (Here, too, is the ugly faithlessness in minority merit that always underlies such maneuverings.) Mr. Obama is promising one thing and practicing another, using his interracial background to suggest an America delivered from racial corruption even as he practices a crude form of racial patronage. From America’s first black president, and a man promising the “new,” we get a Supreme Court nomination that is both unoriginal and hackneyed.

But of course, Steele doesn’t actually demonstrate that Sotomayor lacks individual merit. He predictably brings up the Ricci case but, also predictably, does so without making any mention of the relevant statutes or precedent. Like every other conservative commentary on the case, the decision is simply taken to be wrong for the simple reason that conservatives don’t approve of the outcome. But other than that, there’s nothing. Steele doesn’t make the case that Sotomayor lacks formal qualifications (because that would be too absurd even for him), he doesn’t dig through her career to find any sort of example that would show her to be unqualified in a substantive manner, in part because that’s not what Shelby Steele’s work is built around. Rather, because Sotomayor is a woman and a racial minority, it must be taken for granted that affirmative action is at work he. An hispanic female is ipso facto less qualified than a white man, the same way any other minority is in Shelby Steele’s world. Minorities in general, and black people in particular, don’t get ahead in that world on their own merits, unless, of course, they’re conservatives. Someone ought to ask Shelby Steele what he thinks of Michael Steele, and whether or not the latter would have his current position if the Democrats hadn’t elected the nation’s first black President.

Thomas vs. Sotomayor

Sunday, June 7th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

I will confess, the focus on race in Sonia Sotomayor’s SCOTUS nomination has left me comparing her to Clarence Thomas more than once, so today’s article on the topic in the New York Times was of high interest to me. But the article, as one would expect from the Times, leaves quite a bit to be desired. The conclusion is nauseating in the way it regurgitates right-wing conventional wisdom about both judges, and the particulars leave a lot of relevant information out, especially about Thomas.

There’s no shortage of references to the fact that Thomas purportedly “abhors affirmative action,” but what’s interesting to me is the way these accounts significantly underplay the central role race has always played in Thomas’s rise. There’s the obvious connection made; Thomas was a conservative black man appointed to replace the court’s first, and only, black justice, and would probably not have gotten that appointment were he not a black man. I think that’s a fairly banal observation given the context of the nomination, and I don’t think anyone who denies it ought to be taken seriously. And while I tend to think that people denigrating Thomas as not smart are being somewhat unfair, it is true that his academic accomplishments are objectively below the apparent standards of the contemporary court. But more striking than that is the way most accounts ignore Thomas’s professional history before being nominated to the court. We’re not talking about someone who spent a decade or so on the bench, or someone who was involved at the pinnacle of academia. Thomas was appointed Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education in 1981, and from there moved on to chair the Equal Employment Opportunity Council before being appointed to the Circuit court about a year before his appointment to the Supreme Court. He is, in other words, someone whose professional life for the past 3 decades has been almost totally defined by his race. Moreover, it’s been defined that way by other. When Reagan-Bush needed a black man for a spot, they turned to Clarence Thomas, even for a job he wasn’t particularly qualified for. To be fair to Thomas, I suspect I would be deeply resentful of that as well.

But it seems to me that the problem with Thomas is that he’s projected his experience on to everyone else, and Sotomayor is, in many ways, his antithesis. Sotomayor may have benefitted from affirmative action in being admitted to Princeton, but once there she graduated summa cum laude before going on to graduate at the top of her Yale Law class. Rather than becoming a token minority in race-related positions in a conservative administration, Sotomayor went to work as an Assistant District Attorney in New York City, then into private practice, before being appointed to the District Court at roughly the same time Thomas was appointed to the Circuit Court. Unlike Thomas, however, who was quickly moved up to the Supreme Court, Bill Clinton picked two other people to nominate for the Supreme bench, and now that Sotomayor is being elevated to the highest court, her formal qualifications are more or less beyond question, a stark contrast with Thomas’s nomination.

I could write a much longer post psycho-analyzing Clarence Thomas, and maybe I will, but for now, I’ll just say that the comparison between the two nominees is very interesting, but not if you whitewash Thomas’s side of the story.

You Are What You Say

Monday, June 1st, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

There’s a lot to agree with in this post from Larison, but I want to take issue with this:

As for the other point, it is true that refraining from making baseless charges of racism against Sotomayor will not stop other baseless attacks against conservatives from being made. However, it does seem all but certain that making such baseless charges one of the main lines of attack against Sotomayor will make it far more likely that even those conservative arguments that were once given the benefit of the doubt will be willfully misread in just the same way that critics seem to have been misreading Sotomayor’s statements.

“Willful misreading” is one way to put it, I suppose, but it seems to me that a much more logical way to look at it is that once you develop a track record of playing to racist sentiments or employing racial tropes, you lose the right to be given the benefit of the doubt in the future, because you have a track record. If John Bolton or some other neoconservative hawk writes a column employing hardline rhetoric against, say, North Korea, but without explicitly calling for military action, it’s probably still pretty fair to assume they would be in favor of such a course, because they’ve got a track record of supporting military action against states who take courses they don’t approve of. All of which basically says two things; first, as Yglesias is fond of pointing out, conservatives are much more concerned about accusations of racism than they are with actual instances of racism and, secondly, if you don’t want people to think that you’re a racist, or that you’re comfortable making appeals to racialist sentiment, then maybe you shouldn’t traffic in the sort of rhetoric that calls a summa cum laude graduate of Princeton the recipient of “preferential treatment” based on their race and gender or disparage a Supreme Court nominee with more prior judicial experience than anyone currently sitting on the court an “affirmative action hire.”

Just a suggestion.

Sotomayor Nomination Splitting Activists and Establishment Conservatives

Sunday, May 31st, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

I’d certainly have to say that the most interesting deveopment of the past few days was Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), currently chairing the NRSC, telling NPR that Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich calling Sonia Sotomayor a racist was “terrible.” That marks the first time a high profile, demonstratablu conservative Republican has criticized either since Obama took office, so far as I’m aware.

Digby thinks this is just so much kabuki, but as I said in comments, a wider reading doesn’t really seem to support that. For one thing, Cornyn’s job is to win elections for Senate Republicans, a role that requires him to be somewhat more in touch with electoral reality than your average wingnut. That’s not to say Cornyn isn’t as bad as anyone from a policy standpoint, but he does realize that it’s going to be very hard for Republicans to regain majority status if they drive their support amongst Latino voters down to the levels they get from African-Americans. And given that he comes from a state with a hefty Hispanic population himself, there might even be a bit of self-preservation going on. Cornyn also pissed of the Redstaters by endorsing Charlie Crist in Florida, and offering to go to bat for Arlen Specter in a Republican primary, until Arlen switched parties. So he’s showing some inclination to sleight the base when it’s obviously better for the GOP’s electral prospects. And he’s pronouncing her name correctly.

On the other hand, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is still articulating the rationale for a filibuster of Sotomayor, which makes no sense. Ultimately, Republicans just aren’t going to have the votes to filibuster an obviously qualified nominee, which means that they’re going to look foolish for even talking about it, and alienate Latino voters for nothing. But then, no one ever accused them of being rational did they?


Thursday, May 28th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

I had thought that Mark Krikorian was a shoe-in for the title of Most Absurd Thing Written About Sonia Sotomayor, but I must confess, this Daily Beast column from Elaine Lafferty, arguing that Republicans shouldn’t attack Sotomayor’s intelligence because that’s what sexist Democrats did to Sarah Palin, is going to be incredibly hard to top.

To wit, Democrats didn’t “attack” Palin’s intelligence because they think women are stupid, but because she herself proved, over the course of two months of national campaigning, that she wasn’t that smart. She gave answers like “what the bailout does is help those people who are concerned about the healthcare reform we need” and “in the great history of American rulings there have…of course…been rulings…” She didn’t know what the Bush Doctrine was, indeed, didn’t even seem to know that it related to foreign policy. She couldn’t name a single media source, not even a local one, she reads regularly. Perhaps unintelligent isn’t the right way to describe this, but at the very least she proved to be deeply ignorant about national issues. And, in any event, it certainly seems bizarre to say that Democrats made a mistake in attacking Palin since, obviously, Palin’s ticket lost, and exit polls suggest Palin lost McCain more voters than she gained him.

On the other hand, maybe Sotomayor really isn’t that intelligent. I don’t know her, I’ve never spoken to her, so I’m not really in a position to make broad conclusions regarding her intelligence. But what evidence I do have available to me suggests that she is, in fact, incredibly intelligent, and a very competent jurist. She has, after all, already been confirmed for a spot in the federal judiciary twice, both points involving Republicans in some way (she was appointed by George H.W. Bush to the District Court, and confirmed to the Circuit Court by a Republican Senate). If anyone has counter-evidence I’m open to evaluating it, but there really hasn’t been anything of this nature presented. And that’s the crucial difference between attacks on Palin and attacks on Sotomayor; Democrats were basing their critiques on Palin’s statements and actions, whereas conservatives are arguing that since she’s a woman and an ethnic minority, she must necessarily be less intelligent.

Conservatives Making the Case for Affirmative Action

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

I think Adam Serwer is on to something here, but I don’t think he’s really got the right angle. It’s true that conservatives are employing an obvious double standard with regards to Sotomayor, and in theory that proves the continued need for affirmative action, but at the same time, I really don’t see the same conservatives having any problem employing the same double standards in the event that Obama had nominated a center-left white male for the Court. The media perhaps, but conservatives were going to pull out the knives regardless.

On the other hand, it does seem to me that if you believe a student who graduated summa cum laude, received the highest award Princeton bestows on an undergraduate, and edited the Yale Law Journal never would have even been admitted were it not for affirmative action policies, then you’ve made about as solid a case for the efficacy of affirmative action as anyone ever has.

Racists? What Racists?

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

One great thing about the nomination of a Hispanic to the Supreme Court is that Mark Krikorian’s head was more or less guaranteed to explode, and that’s exactly what happened. He started by wondering how we should pronounce her name, and then doubled down on that today with a full throated defense of unilateral Anglinizing of the pronunciation of names, whether or not the individual likes it:

Deferring to people’s own pronunciation of their names should obviously be our first inclination, but there ought to be limits. Putting the emphasis on the final syllable of Sotomayor is unnatural in English (which is why the president stopped doing it after the first time at his press conference), unlike my correspondent’s simple preference for a monophthong over a diphthong, and insisting on an unnatural pronunciation is something we shouldn’t be giving in to.

For instance, in Armenian, the emphasis is on the second syllable in my surname, just as in English, but it has three syllables, not four (the “ian” is one syllable) — but that’s not how you’d say it in English (the “ian” means the same thing as in English — think Washingtonian or Jeffersonian). Likewise in Russian, you put the emphasis in my name on the final syllable and turn the “o” into a schwa, and they’re free to do so because that’s the way it works in their language. And should we put Asian surnames first in English just because that’s the way they do it in Asia? When speaking of people in Asia, okay, but not people of Asian origin here, where Mao Tse-tung would properly have been changed to Tse-tung Mao. Likewise with the Mexican practice of including your mother’s maiden name as your last name, after your father’s surname.

This may seem like carping, but it’s not. Part of our success in assimilation has been to leave whole areas of culture up to the individual, so that newcomers have whatever cuisine or religion or so on they want, limiting the demand for conformity to a smaller field than most other places would. But one of the areas where conformity is appropriate is how your new countrymen say your name, since that’s not something the rest of us can just ignore, unlike what church you go to or what you eat for lunch. And there are basically two options — the newcomer adapts to us, or we adapt to him. And multiculturalism means there’s a lot more of the latter going on than there should be.

This is, of course, completely fucking ridiculous. For one thing, Sonia Sotomayor is not a “newcomer,” she was born and raised in The Bronx, which is in New York City, which is in the United States of America. But she has an ethnic name, and she, and her family, prefers to pronounce it based on the rules of its original language. Any decent person ought to respect that, but Krikorian is obviously not a decent person. He’s a shameless hack who heads an anti-immigration special interest group, and opposes all forms of immigration, including legal immigration, and has a particular problem with Hispanics. He is, in other words, a pretty blatant racist (or at the least, an extreme ethnocentrist), who is extremely bothered by the correct pronunciation of ethnic words, like Senator Geary, insisting on calling the Corleone family the “Cor-lee-ons.” 

Because obviously that is the most important issue facing America today.

I’m Old Enough to Remember When George Will Was Respectable

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

It seems that, in addition to having a bit of a problem with honesty, George Will is also something of a racist, as evidenced by his latest column denouncing the Sotomayor nomination as “Identity Justice.” Publius already addressed this, but he was far too nice about it for my liking.

First of all, let’s establish one thing; anyone who tries to argue that Sotomayor is not qualified for the court should not be taken seriously, and is unquestionably attempting to construct the affirmative action appointment talking point. Anyone doing that is either, a) a racist, b) attempting to cultivate racial resentment in others. That’s because there’s no contemporary standard by which Sotomayor is not qualified from the court. She has an undergraduate degree from Princeton and a law degree from Yale, the exact same educational resume of one Samuel Alito. She first became a judge when George H.W. Bush appointed her to the District Court in 1991, then was promoted to the 2nd Circuit i 1998, meaning she’s been a federal judge for 18 years. Chief Justice John Roberts, by contrast, had all of 2 years of judicial experience when George W. Bush nominated him to replace William Rehnquist, who had no prior judicial experience whatsoever before joining the court in 1971. The Justice Sotomayor would replace, David Souter, spent less than 5 months on the 1st Circuit before being elevated to SCOTUS in 1991, although he did have 7 years eperience on the New Hampshire state Supreme Court.

What’s even more telling than the denigration of what, were Sotomayor a white male, would undoubtedly be considered an impeccable set of credentials is that, in all of 18 years, apparently the only case of Sotomayor’s that the right-wing can find to disagree with concerns affirmative action, and is about as textbook of an example of judicial restraint as you could find. But here’s how Will describes it:

Before Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings begin, the Supreme Court probably will overturn a ruling she supported on the 2nd Circuit — the propriety of New Haven, Conn., canceling fire department promotions because there were no African Americans (although there was a Hispanic) among the 18 firemen the selection test made eligible for promotion. A three-judge panel of 2nd Circuit judges, including Sotomayor, affirmed a district court’s dismissal of the firemen’s complaint, doing so in a perfunctory and unpublished order that acknowledged none of the large constitutional questions involved[…]

Perhaps Sotomayor subscribes to the Thurgood Marshall doctrine: “You do what you think is right and let the law catch up” (quoted in the Stanford Law Review, summer 1992). Does she think the figure of Justice should lift her blindfold, an emblem of impartiality, and be partial to certain categories of persons? 

 Except, as one should probably expect from Will, this isn’t an accurate representation of the Ricci case, or the 2nd Circuit’s ruling whatsoever. In Ricci, the city of New Haven decided to throw out promotion tests for the fire department after a disproportionate number of minorities failed to pass on the basis of counsel from the city attorney, who warned that using the tests could leave the city open to a lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. After the city did so, a dyslexic white male sued, claiming this was a violation of his Civil Rights. The 2nd Circuit’s ruling essentially affirmed two things; first, that discarding the first test and requiring all participants to take a new test was not a violation of anyone’s civil rights. Secondly, they found that the city was perfectly within their authority to attempt to comply with existing federal law, because the city attorney was absolutely right; the city almost certainly would have been sued, successfully, had they used the tests. The outcome certainly may not be optimal from a social policy standpoint, but if you feel that way then your problem is with the law, not tht court that applied the law as it is written. This is nice, however, because it blatantly affirms the obvious; conservatives don’t want “judicial restraint” or “strict construction,” they want very, very activist judges. They just want them to reach outcomes that they prefer. And they have no problem distorting facts either.

And The Washington Post will happily give them the media space to do so.

It’s Sotomayor

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

President Obama announced that he would, in fact, be nominating Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the 2nd District Court of appeals to replace retiring Justice David Souter on the United States Supreme Court. Sotomayor had faced the most push back of any of the potential nominees rumored to be on Obama’s short list, punctuated by Jeffrey Rosen’s article in The New Republic arguing, based entirely on anonymous sources, that Sotomayor is “not that smart,” degrees from Princeton and Yale notwithstanding. If confirmed, Sotomayor would become the 3rd woman to ever sit on the Court, and the first Hispanic.

The question now, of course, is how the confirmation battle will shake out. Democrats have a large majority in the Senate, although Ben Nelson of Nebraska has indicated that he may be open to filibustering the nominee. Still, it seems likely that Sotomayor will easily have more than 60 votes in favor of confirmation. 8 current Republican Senators voted to confirm her when President Clinton nomiated her to the 2nd district in 1998, after 7 years on the Circuit Court, and a reversal now would be pretty hard to square away on the merits. Moreover, Sotomayor’s race makes it somewhat complicated to oppose her too vigorously. Hispanics are growing rapidly as a voting demographic, and represented the most dramatic shift in the 2008 election from 2004 (Obama bested Kerry’s performance amongst Hispanics by about 20%, whereas he improved on Kerry’s total with white voters by a mere 2%), and Republican Senators in the Southwest will have a particularly difficult time being overly aggressive in their opposition.

The conservative base will, of course, make a lot of noise (and raise a lot of money) over the prospect of opposing Obama’s nominee, but at the end of the day, the votes are just there to confirm, and Senate Republicans on the whole are unlikely to go all in on something of a landmine topic if they know there’s little to no chance of winning.

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