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A Smile to Set the GOP on Edge

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, May 29, 2009

President Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, is a proud and accomplished Latina. This fact apparently drives some prominent Republicans to a state resembling incoherent, sputtering rage.

"White man racist nominee would be forced to withdraw. Latina woman racist should also withdraw," former House speaker Newt Gingrich ranted Wednesday on Twitter. My first reaction was that politicians above a certain age should never be left alone in the danger-strewn landscape of social networking. My second thought was: Whoa, Newt, what's that about?

Rush Limbaugh also -- predictably -- bellowed endlessly about how Sotomayor was a "reverse racist," and how Obama was one, too. But unlike Gingrich, Limbaugh doesn't ask to be taken seriously. He just asks to be paid.

Gingrich's outburst was in reaction to a widely publicized, out-of-context quote from a 2001 speech in which Sotomayor mused about how her identity might or might not affect her decisions as a federal judge. Far from being some kind of "racist" screed, the speech was actually a meditation on Sotomayor's personal experience of a universal truth: Who we are inevitably influences what we do.

Each of us carries through life a unique set of experiences. Sotomayor's happen to be the experiences of a brilliant, high-powered Latina -- a Nuyorican who was raised in the projects of the Bronx, graduated summa cum laude from Princeton, edited the Yale Law Journal, worked as a Manhattan prosecutor and a corporate lawyer, and served for 17 years as a federal trial and appellate judge.

Given that kind of sterling résumé -- and given that she has, according to presidential adviser David Axelrod, more experience on the federal bench than any Supreme Court nominee in at least 100 years -- it's understandable that Republican critics would have to grasp at straws.

The charge that she's a "judicial activist" finds no basis in her voluminous record. Critics have seized on a ruling she joined in a case called Ricci v. DeStefano, involving a reverse-discrimination claim by a group of white firefighters in New Haven, Conn. But Sotomayor's action in that case is more properly seen as an example of judicial restraint.

What happened was that the city gave an advancement exam to firefighters, and no African Americans were deemed eligible for promotion. Fearing that it would lose ground in its effort to diversify the leadership of the fire department, and fearing a civil rights lawsuit, the city canceled the exam. The firefighters who passed did not get the promotions they had expected. A U.S. District Court judge ruled that the city government had acted within the law, and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit -- including Sotomayor -- agreed.

What Sotomayor's attackers either don't understand or won't acknowledge is that the issue before the court wasn't whether the city of New Haven had acted fairly in canceling the exam but whether it had acted legally. There was ample precedent indicating that the action was, in fact, legal. I thought the whole theory of judicial restraint was that we didn't want unelected judges telling our elected officials what to do. I thought the conservative idea was that judges were just supposed to "call balls and strikes" -- which is just what Sotomayor and her colleagues did.

Ah, but there's always a subtext. Like Sotomayor's 2001 speech, the New Haven case was really about identity -- and about power. In both instances, as Sotomayor's critics saw it, minorities were either claiming or obtaining some kind of advantage over white males. Never mind whether this perception has any basis in fact. The very concept seemed to be enough to light a thermonuclear fuse.

Despite the best efforts of Gingrich, Limbaugh and others, Sotomayor's confirmation process probably won't be about race. Her qualifications are impeccable, her record is moderate and her personality, according to colleagues, is winning. At her confirmation hearings, she'll have the opportunity to supply the missing context for any quote they throw at her. Absent some 11th-hour surprise, I can't imagine that her opponents in the Senate will be able to lay a glove on her.

I also can't imagine that she'll pretend to be anyone other than who she is. Sonia Sotomayor has made clear that she is proud of her identity, and she offers that pride not as an affront but as an example -- not white, not male, not Anglo, not inclined to apologize. She is the new face of America, and she has a dazzling smile.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com

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