Friday, June 05, 2009
6806: Diversity Controversial For Court Role…?
From The New York Times…
Speeches Show Judge’s Steady Focus on Diversity and Struggle
By Peter Baker and Jo Becker
WASHINGTON — In speech after speech over the years, Judge Sonia Sotomayor has returned to the themes of diversity, struggle, heritage and alienation that have both powered and complicated her nomination to the Supreme Court.
She has lamented the dearth of Hispanics on the federal bench. She has exhorted young people to value immigration. She has mulled over the “deeply confused image” America has of its own racial identity. And she has used on more than one occasion a version of the “wise Latina” line that she has spent much of this week trying to explain.
Dozens of her speeches released by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday underscore the dynamics that have defined her case for the court. As President Obama’s nominee to replace Justice David H. Souter, Judge Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic and third woman to serve on the Supreme Court, distinctions that have generated much excitement. But her discussion of ethnicity and gender issues has provided fodder for critics who call her a judicial activist.
The debate has focused more on her off-the-bench public addresses than her court rulings, which even some critics have called more moderate than her words. As it submitted her answers to a Senate questionnaire Thursday, the White House called on lawmakers and the public to assess her based on her deep experience as a prosecutor, corporate litigator and federal judge.
The White House counsel, Gregory B. Craig, said in a statement, “The answers demonstrate how Judge Sotomayor’s three-decade career and her significant contributions to the law and her community provide her with unique and unprecedented qualifications to be the next Supreme Court justice.”
Accompanying the 172-page questionnaire sent to the Judiciary Committee were five boxes of her speeches, writings and other materials, which both sides began poring through for evidence to validate their arguments. Republicans on the committee withheld comment while they studied the documents.
The nominee emerging from the papers is a prosecutor who tried violent criminals like the so-called Tarzan Murderer, a lawyer who represented silk-purse clients like Fendi and Ferrari, and a judge who ruled on subjects as varied as a strike by baseball players and the exclusionary rule. After 17 years on the district court and now the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York, Judge Sotomayor has accumulated so little money that her credit card and dental bills nearly match her total savings.
The documents reveal that the White House contacted her about a possible Supreme Court nomination on April 27, three days before Justice Souter’s plan to retire was publicly reported. From that point on, she wrote, she had “near daily phone calls” with White House officials, indicating how serious Mr. Obama was about her as a candidate from the beginning.
Unlike Mr. Obama, who as president has largely avoided overt discussion of his racial identity, Judge Sotomayor has made her ethnicity a regular theme of her public addresses, touching on it to make points with audiences that were sometimes largely Hispanic and sometimes not. At times, she portrayed herself as a stranger in a strange land.
“Somewhere all of us Puerto Ricans and people of color have had a defining moment when we were shocked into learning that we were different and that American society treated us differently,” she told the National Puerto Rican Coalition in 1998. “The shock and sense of being an alien will never again, I suspect, be as profound for any of us as that first experience, because I know from personal experience that our education and professional training have equipped us to deal better in this sometimes alien land.”
In another 1998 speech, she said the United States was often ambivalent about how to deal with its diversity. “America has a deeply confused image of itself that is a perpetual source of tension,” she said. “We are a nation that takes pride in our ethnic diversity, recognizing its importance in shaping our society and in adding richness to its existence.
“Yet we simultaneously insist that we can and must function and live in a race- and color-blind way that ignores those very differences that in other contexts we laud.”
Her speeches also indicate that she is not afraid to take on opponents. In 1998, after she was confirmed to the appeals court, she recounted how she was vigorously questioned by senators based on what she called “mischaracterization and misunderstanding of three of my decisions” by Rush Limbaugh. In recent days, Mr. Limbaugh has led the fight against her nomination, calling her a “reverse racist.”
In a 2001 speech, Judge Sotomayor attributed the yearlong delay before her confirmation to “Senate Republican leaders who believed that I was a potential for the Supreme Court one day.”
On another sensitive topic, Judge Sotomayor said in 2004 that international law held “very limited formal force” in the United States but that judges should not “close their minds to good ideas.”
She added: “If the idea has validity, if it persuades you, then you’re going to adopt its reasoning. If it doesn’t fit, then you won’t use it.”
That was the same year she made the comment about how a “wise Latina” could make a better decision than a white man. The White House has called that a poor choice of words, but it was not the only time she used them. In 1994, she said something similar, although she referred to women generally, not just Latinas. And in 2003, she said a “wise Latina woman” would “reach a better conclusion” but did not say better than whom.
The White House argued that the fact that she had used a similar formulation in 1994 without its being questioned during the 1998 confirmation process showed that it was now being manufactured as a false issue. And to rebut the notion that she would let her background blur her jurisprudence, the administration pointed to a 2000 speech in which she said, “I have to unhook myself from my emotional responses and try to stay within my unemotional, objective persona.”
The documents submitted to the Senate underscored how much more modest Judge Sotomayor’s finances were than those of many of her would-be colleagues. Judge Sotomayor, who makes about $180,000 a year, owns no stock and has just $31,985 in savings. Her two-bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village, which she bought in 1998 for $360,000, is her only major asset, valued at just under $1 million.
After refinancing several times, she owes $381,775 on the home as well as $15,000 for credit card bills and $15,000 for dental bills, making her net worth just over $740,000.
Federal judges who spend at least 15 years on the bench, as Judge Sotomayor has, are entitled to an annual retirement benefit equal to their full salary for life starting at age 65.
Reporting was contributed by Adam Liptak, Charlie Savage and Bernie Becker.