Facing Down Condescension and Lectures, Sotomayor Teaches Senators About Civics and More


Editor’s Note: A correction was made in this article at 9:38 pm on Thursday, July 16th, changing a reference to Dredd v. Scott to Dredd Scott v. Sandford, the case to which Jill meant to refer.

If
there’s one thing that this week’s Senate confirmation hearings
made clear, it’s that Judge Sotomayor is not just a great mind, but
a patient and generous teacher.  Surrounded by senators who seemed
primarily concerned with topping each other in condescension, Sotomayor
responded with respect, nuance and a solid grounding in the law –
to the point where the hearings sometimes felt like a high school civics
class, with Sotomayor explaining the fundamentals of our legal system. 
The biggest surprises of the hearings so far haven’t come from Sotomayor
herself, but from the ignorance and arrogance shown by some members
of the GOP.  And the biggest pay-off won’t just be from Sotomayor’s
confirmation – although that will certainly happen – but from the
GOP’s torching of any goodwill it hasn’t already set aflame with
women and racial minorities. 

In
the hearings, Sotomayor faced down Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama senator
with a notoriously racially troubled past.  Sessions sat in Sotomayor’s
seat when Ronald Regan nominated him for a federal judgeship. 
The Senate Judiciary Committee killed his nomination after it came to
light that he joked that he used to think the Ku Klux Klan wasn’t
so bad until he found out some of them smoked marijuana, and he believed
the NAACP and the ACLU to be "un-American and "Communist-inspired"
- his biggest grievance with the groups being that they "forced"
civil rights down our collective throats.  Watching Sotomayor respond
to Sessions’ sneering questions with insightful and polite answers
was simultaneously infuriating and inspiring – I’m not sure I could
have been nearly as composed, but she certainly put to rest any concerns
about her "temperament."   

Or
at least, she put those concerns to rest in the minds of reasonable
people.  Sen. Lindsey Graham wasn’t satisfied, and had the nerve to
read off several anonymous and unattributed statements about Sotomayor’s
"temperament problem." His point was that Sotomayor is
too mean and too harsh in her questioning to be a good judge – a concern
rarely raised with aggressive male judges like Antonin Scalia. 
But instead of making her look unreasonable or "temperamental" (what
is she, a racehorse?), he succeeded only in making himself look like
a bully and a fool, targeting her personality instead of her record.
Like many others in the GOP, he threw in some references to her "Wise
Latina" comment for good measure – after all, someone in the studio
audience may not be aware that she’s not white.   

And
it only went downhill on Wednesday.  Abortion-related queries predictably
came up on both days, but were driven home with staunch anti-choice Sen. Tom Coburn’s line of questioning.  After asking her about
the current state of abortion laws in the United States as if he didn’t
know – there’s that condescension again – Coburn took the hearings
as an opportunity to lecture her, saying, "I don’t expect you to
answer this, but I do expect you to pay attention to it as you contemplate
these big issues," before fixating on viability and fetal heartbeats.   

Can
you picture Sen. Coburn rhetorically shaking his finger like that at
Scalia or Chief Justice Roberts? 

If
that wasn’t enough, Coburn then told Sotomayor, "You’ll have lots
of ‘splainin’ to do" in a back-and-forth about the Second Amendment
and self-defense.  Only in our "post-racial" era can old white
men criticize a highly-educated, accomplished Latina jurist for being
"racist" and not adequately colorblind, accuse her of being an affirmative
action pick
, and then throw
a Ricky Ricardo quote at her.  

But
perhaps the most offensive aspect of the hearings was some of the senators’
blatant misrepresentations and feigned ignorance of the law.  Senator
Coburn’s request that Sotomayor explain the status of abortion rights
was just the tip of the iceberg.  In his line of questioning on
Wednesday, Sen. Orrin Hatch asked Sotomayor her opinion on judges "reading
rights into the Constitution."  Certainly Sen. Hatch is familiar
with the Ninth Amendment, which states simply that "The
enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed
to deny or disparage others retained by the people" – in other words,
just because a right isn’t explicitly delineated in the Constitution
doesn’t mean that the government is free to violate it.  Even
more egregious was Sen. Graham’s contention that the Puerto Rican
Legal Defense Fund, on whose board Sotomayor sat, argued in a brief
that refusing to use taxpayer funds for abortion is akin to slavery. 
In fact, PRLDEF used the infamous Dredd Scott v. Sanford case to make
the point that the anti-abortion law in question treated poor women
as less than citizens under the law – the same mistake notoriously
made in Dredd

Throughout
it all, though, Sotomayor remained poised and calm, answering the questions
thoughtfully and thoroughly – much the same way she writes her opinions. 
Her knowledge of the law, her preparation and her presentation were
absolute perfection – and serve as another example of a woman of color
having to do things twice as well as everyone else in order to succeed
(and she still has her intelligence, temperament and aptitude questioned).   

There
is almost no doubt that she will be confirmed.  What remains to
be seen is just how much damage these hearings will do to an already
battered Republican Party.  If Democrats are smart, they will replay
these clips ad nauseum, and let all of America – and not just the
nerds who streamed CSPAN at work – see just how Republicans act when
they sit face-to-face with a woman of color (especially one whose accomplishments
trump their own and may in their eyes be a little too big for her britches). 
I wonder what the female, non-white or even rudimentarily racially aware
GOP constituents will think when they see the condescension and disdain
heaped upon a woman who graciously responds with nothing but patience
and tolerance.   

I
suspect the senators will have some "splainin" to do. 

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  • crowepps

    My favorite was the ‘why didn’t you decide the same thing as the other Puerto Rican?’ as though all ‘those people’ would think the same thing.

  • http://feministadvisoryboard.blogspot.com invalid-0

    Jill–I’ve been watching the Sotomayor hearings and have found it painful to watch Judge Sotomayor eat so much crow and show so much deference to men who are behaving badly. Yesterday I wrote a rant about Lindsey Graham but hesitated to post it because I wasn’t sure if I would respect myself in the morning. Funny, I do respect myself upon re-reading, but the rant seems already out-of-date, yesterday’s news. Or maybe posting a rant feels completely disproportionate to the racism, sexism and pure condescension displayed by the Republicans. What I mean is that I have lived my life as an intelligent woman who has also had to suck it up when white men condescended to me. I just kept thinking about the contradiction between the characterization of her as a “bully on the bench” and this warm, gracious, generous, deferential, patient woman answering to a pack of assholes. I can only surmise, but there’s got to be a connection here…and I’m guessing that when one comes from the projects and grows up Latina and has intelligence and ambition, that sucking it up becomes simply survival. After all, all of us live in a pecking order at some time in our lives. And so, with all of that stored up ducking and smiling when what she really wants to do is verbally eviscerate these smug senators, I can see how she would be unleashed on the bench and show her firepower. I want to see her firepower very much, and I hope that TV will be allowed into the Supreme Court. It will be an education for the whole country, and I don’t mean just a course in jurisprudence. Women and men need to see, on a regular basis, a highly intelligent woman in a position of real power. They need to learn appropriate deference and respect for women in power.

  • invalid-0

    I’m struck by the 50 point IQ difference between that condescending goomba, Jeff Sessions and soon to be Justice Sotomayor.
    There’s no excuse for Sessions, Hatch or Lindsey Graham. Their states should be ashamed to elect such men.
    Between the overt racists and the religious right the GOP has become a party of savage freaks.

  • crowepps

    Keep in mind too that the Judge spends her professional time dealing with attorneys, at least a few of whom are equally idiotic.  I’m sure at least a few of them have a hard time treating her with the appropriate respect, and yet it is her job to treat them fairly and impartially.  Senators, on the other hand, tend to think of themselves as far superior to not just women but everyone else in the country.

  • invalid-0

    Frankly I’m thrilled that Sonia Sotomayor makes these senators look like fools. Unfortunately no one said you had to be intelligent to be in politics, as evidenced by these guys, and yes, the Democrats should make sure to point out how patently stupid the Republicans are.

  • http://www.dartmouthdesign.com invalid-0

    Thank you for this blog. I find some relief in reading the opinions of an intelligent woman who shares my sentiments and takes the time to commit them to paper. Thank you for gathering all these points together in such a cogent way. Some of my frustration and well, fury, stems from feeling overwhelmed by the level of offense, and feeling that I don’t have a sound avenue to voice my opposition.

    For the record, I have seen in some white male friends, too, this week that any bits of GOP good will have been burned for them, as well.

  • hatmaker510

    Watching her during the hearing I’m so impressed with her easy ability to remain calm and patient while Sessions and his ilk have attacked and insulted her, time and again, asking her the same questions over and over. All the while she remained composed, professional, polite, and so very well-spoken. The only time I saw her even come close to struggling for words was when she was forced to come up with a 3rd, 4th, 5th way to answer Sessions’ repeated questions. (Did he really think if he asks the same question, but changes the wording that he would somehow get her to answer differently or confuse her!?) If they’re trying to make her squirm, they’ve failed miserably.
    And isn’t it just wonderful for young women to have a successful woman like her to look up to and strive to model her behavior and demeanor? For me personally, I sometimes have difficulty not reacting to similar, lesser attacks, but now when trying to retain my composure, I need only recall her grace under pressure. What an inspiration to women young and old!

    About Sessions – here’s a great article which illustrates the kind of person he REALLY is:
    http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=8dd230f6-355f-4362-89cc-2c756b9d8102

    Sessions really is a disgrace!

    Thanks, Jill for writing this!

    Melissa

  • invalid-0

    Her intellect is superior to most of those who are questioning her, that is clear. And the only ones who are having trouble with that are the GOP members. They are hostile, snarky and angry – not because of the issues, but because this Latina WOMAN is about to become a Supreme Court Justice, something they never wanted to see happen.

    The GOP members of the confirmation committee are displaying for all to see exactly why they lost. And still, they have NO CLUE.

  • invalid-0

    Jill, the case is not “Dredd v. Scott,” but rather “Dred Scott v. Stanford.” Dred Scott was the plaintiff in the case.

    While this is an otherwise good piece with which I wholeheartedly agree, this is a pretty egregious mistake for a site of the caliber of RH Reality Check. It’s especially egregious given the fact that Jill herself is an attorney. Dred Scott is generally considered a landmark case, and I find it surprising that no one caught this fairly major mistake. Please fact check in the future. Such mistakes take away from both the site’s and the author’s credibility.

  • jodi-jacobson

    Thanks for the note.

    Mistakes are made in the best of outlets and by all people some times. This actually was probably a pretty easy mistake to make when one is writing quickly on current issues for quick turnover and a publication with a very small staff.

    We –and Jill– appreciate that you pointed it out and rely on our readers for the same.

    Jodi Jacobson

  • http://physioprof.wordpress.com invalid-0

    Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has totally fucked up Ninth Amendment jurisprudence with their focus on “penumbrae” or “due process” as the origin of unenumerated rights. Thus, as things currently stand, the Ninth Amendment is given essentially no constitutional weight whatsoever.

    I have written about this here:

    http://physioprof.wordpress.com/2009/03/14/repost-constitutional-originalism-natural-law-and-the-ninth-amendment/