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Here Comes the Judge: Race, Gender and the Politics of the Sotomayor Controversy


On May 26th, President Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to replace retiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. If confirmed by the Senate, Sotomayor will be the first Latino and the first woman of color to sit on the nation’s highest court. The fact that Justices serve until retirement or impeachment and play a powerful role within a Court that can, and has, overturned laws and executive actions it deemed unlawful or unconstitutional means that most nominations are met with a certain amount of scrutiny. 

The nomination of Sonia Sotomayor is no exception. It has been protested and praised as racial and gender stereotypes take center stage. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh started what many have deemed "right-wing hysteria" over the nomination when Gingrich called Sotomayor a "Latina racist" and Limbaugh called her a "bigot." And although Gingrich later apologized he simultaneously asserted that Sotomayor "betrayed American values."

The New York Times Op-Ed Columnist, Bob Herbert writes: "Karl Rove sneered that Ms. Sotomayor was not necessarily smart, thus managing to get the toxic issue of intelligence into play in the case of a woman who graduated summa cum laude from Princeton, went on to get a law degree from Yale and has more experience as a judge than any of the current justices had at the time of their nominations to the court."

But Republicans aren’t the only ones who voiced disagreement over Obama’s pick. William Redpath, National Committee Chairman of the Libertarian Party said: "By nominating Sonia Sotomayor, Barack Obama has made it clear he prefers an activist for his personal causes over a rational interpreter of the law."

Sotomayor’s career includes attending Princeton University and Yale Law School, serving as a prosecutor and partner in a commercial law firm, delivering a key ruling in 1995 that brought Major League Baseball back after a strike, and time as a federal appeals judge. This is combined with her ethnic background, for many, make her a strong candidate, especially in a diverse world that looks more like her than the Justice she replaces.

Jill Filipovic a blogger at and contributor to the site Reproductive Health Reality Check writes: "Sotomayor has embraced free speech rights even where the speech was abhorrent (an NYPD officer mailing anonymous bigoted and racist materials to charities requesting donations); stood up for victims of race, gender, age and disability discrimination; and dissented when the Second Circuit rejected a challenge to the New York law that disenfranchises convicted felons. She is by most accounts an intellectually gifted, hard-working and highly experienced judge."

Historically, judges of color and women have faced difficulties during the confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court. Sherrilyn A. Ifill, a professor of law at the University of Maryland, writes for, "The confirmation hearings for Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court in 1967 were perhaps the most openly hostile and provocative, with southern Senators Strom Thurmond and James Eastland attempting to paint Marshall, then-solicitor general of the United States, as a communist, a liar and as intellectually unprepared to sit on the court. It’s difficult to read the transcripts without cringing at the obvious racism and disrespect meted out by members of the Judiciary Committee."

Why do you think there has been so much criticism over Sotomayor’s nomination? Do you think Sotomayor will be less equipped to make fair judgments when it comes to rulings that involve race or gender, and why? How does the media’s handling of Sotomayor parallel how the media initially portrayed Michelle Obama? Is it important for the diversity of the United States to be reflected in the Supreme Court, and if so why? Do you think it’s time that another person of color and woman serve on the Supreme Court? If you don’t agree with Obama’s choice, who do you think would have been a better nominee? How does the controversy over Sotomayor’s nomination parallel or differ from the nomination of Thurgood Marshall?  What criteria should be used to determine support for a Supreme Court nomination? Should Supreme Court Justices serve until retirement? Why are issues of race and gender at the center of the controversy and what does this say about how society? What do you know about Sotomayor’s record and why or why don’t you support her nomination?

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