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Category: Politics, Great Women

Fearless Judge, Fearful Conservatives

| May 29, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor (with Vice President Biden and President Obama) accepts nomination to the Supreme Court.

The nation has barely had a chance to meet the new nominee for the Supreme Court, but some are all too ready to resent a woman of such fortitude. The author argues that sexism is evident in the agenda of many of Judge Sotomayor’s opponents.

The Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor has been described as a bully and domineering. Critics have questioned her temperament on the federal bench, as well as her intelligence.

Is this a surprise when it comes to a powerful woman?

The language used to describe Sotomayor was tired before it was even launched. It reflects a stale, conservative script with two aims: deflating the power of a woman poised to advance our nation and using her gender against her for political means. And it fuels a Jurassic and patriarchal notion—that leadership and greatness are the domain of only men.

Here and too many times before—remember the can-she-push-the-red-button days?—the sexist subtext is that Sotomayor has tantrums because she is a woman. When a man is tough and confident, he is simply that. Yet when a woman is tough and confident, she is moody and out of her place. I’m just wondering why they haven’t already referred to her as a spitfire.

And why even bother with the facts?

Judge Sotomayor is known as a rigorous questioner because that is what she is supposed to do. Colleagues, former clerks and lawyers have called her tough but fair, and collegial.

People who know Sotomayor and who have worked with her have praised her brilliance, impeccable credentials, and wealth of experience. Her former boss, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, said she was a fearless prosecutor. Richard Aborn, a former colleague, called her intelligent and extremely qualified. And Robin Kar, a former clerk for Sotomayor, wrote in a recent column, “she is in that rarified class of people for whom it makes sense to say that there is no one genuinely smarter.”

So whose voices ring true—the people who know her or the right-wingers with their minds made up and who are afraid of change?

The reality before the nation is that there is a fearless judge with a lifelong commitment to Constitutional values and to understanding, as President Obama put it, “people’s hopes and struggles.”

Sotomayor’s record as a federal jurist, as a litigator and as a prosecutor reflects a sharp legal mind. That she is a two-time Ivy League graduate and did not enter those prestigious institutions with a family name and deep pockets speaks to the vast majority of Americans who do not come from privilege. And she knows the difficulties and challenges for people who are frequently second-guessed and underestimated.

Her story is not simply compelling because it is a heart-warming, bottom-up success story. It is appealing because we see in it the strength of her character—a character shaped by her amazing mother, who was a former nurse and member of the Women’s Army Corps.

The New York City that her mother, Celina Sotomayor, arrived to decades ago was not the city of today, with the policies and opportunities to help newcomers adjust. Rather, it was too frequently hostile to the then-burgeoning Puerto Rican community.  It was in that environment, as a widow living in the marginalized area of the South Bronx, that Sotomayor’s mother faced down the odds against her family and raised a brilliant daughter who is likely to become the next Supreme Court Justice.

That Judge Sotomayor honors her working-class roots and her identity as a Puerto Rican, Hispanic, American woman from the Bronx is no deficiency. On the contrary, it is precisely what has made her nomination cause for celebration.

Everyone has the right to form an opinion about Sotomayor. But in forming one, they should take a note from her thoroughness, diligence and intellect in reaching decisions on the bench.

Examine the judge by her record and character, not according to a political agenda reeking with sexism.