Say it ain’t so Sonia.
That’s the tune coming out of the Grand Old Party these days as federal appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor was introduced as President Obama’s first Supreme Court nominee – via a ravenous media, press conferences, attack ads, proponent ads and past published opinions and speeches – to the American people. When you are a party currently relegated to the political wilderness, your proverbial faces pressed up against the wintery glass to see your opponents gathered around the warm hearth of public approval, you’re itching for the kind of toss-the-sink fight provided by a high court nominee. Problem is, the conservative Republican base is once again pushing the party into a fight it cannot win.
The American people are fickle when it comes to the Supreme Court – everyone’s heard of it but nobody knows what it does or who its justices are, everyone cares about its decisions but only with trepidation as to what they exactly mean in day-to-day life. That the Court deals almost exclusively in divisive legal issues that it deems worthy of a writ of certiorari makes its yearly docket a full and contentious one, but the lifetime appointments of its justices confound the issue of how the public can respond: sign-waving protests or pundit gasbaggery has little, if any, effect on the decisions that lethargically spill from the marble court steps. And that, of course, is the brilliance of our system of government, that one of the three branches of power is held at a distance to the whims of the people, (hopefully) ensuring that decisions are made with dedication to the truest intent of the law.
But the power of these nine black robes scares people, if ambiguously. The confirmation process has now become the one and only avenue for Debate and Discourse, a D&D that invariably degenerates into a shouting match about issues like abortion, eminent domain, affirmative action, freedom of speech, voting rights and, most recently, “judicial activism.”
That’s a buzzword favored by conservative Republicans disinclined to see judges interpreting the changing meaning and influence of our Constitution. Strict “originalists” like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas (presumably, since he hasn’t asked a question from the bench since February 2006) argue that the capacity of a judge is to apply the original words of the Constitution to the present case at hand and not extend beyond, into evolving interpretation and personal feelings. The “liberal” justices, of which retiring David Souter was a part, were more inclined to see the spirit of the law and mold its greater meaning to be most applicable and useful in the present day.
So the GOP is now gearing up its attack dogs (the Judicial Confirmation Network, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich) to besmirch Judge Sotomayor on the basis of comments she’d previously made concerning the role of a judge, saying the “… court of appeals is where policy is made …” while noting she doesn’t advocate it, as well as President Obama’s proclaimed interest in finding a new justice with “empathy,” which conservatives read as a personal, impartial bent to be brought to cases. Lunatic-in-Chief Limbaugh went so far as to call Sotomayor a “racist” for her suggestion in 2001 that a Latina woman rich in experience would more often than not come to a better conclusion – in context: noting particularly cases of gender and racial discrimination – than a white man who hadn’t lived her life.
But the mainstream or moderate GOP – if such a thing exists anymore – would do well to take a pass on brawling about Sotomayor. Whatever individual concerns her supporters and critics might have, she would sit on the Court as the justice with the most time on a federal bench before taking her seat and having gone through two previous confirmations by presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Perhaps more important for the GOP to consider, at least politically, is the matter of her “empathy.” Whether they believe it’s a code-word for judicial activism or not, Sotomayor reaffirms the Democratic Party and President Obama’s determination to become increasingly diverse and inclusive.
Far from Limbaugh’s calls of Sotomayor’s racism, if the GOP takes its hopeless battle too far (the Democrats may well have a 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate come confirmation time) the GOP could well find itself cast in a racist light in the eyes of enormously influential Hispanic voters. If Republicans like being on the outside looking in, vindictively opposing Sotomayor is the best way to guarantee their faces will be pressed to the glass for a long time.
Sonia Sotomayor: Obama’s First Supreme Court Pick
Say it ain’t so Sonia.