The shallowness of commentary on Sotomayor

The problem with the overwhelming majority of comments you will see on the subject of the Sotomayor nomination, or any other nomination to the court, is that it is shallow, and informed almost entirely by the commenters’ partisan leanings. All you will learn from it is which side the writer chooses in our never-ending party madness, or the parallel culture wars.

That is unfortunately true of this piece in The New Yorker by Jeffrey Toobin. It drips with this attitude: I’m a liberal, so I think this, and if you disagree with me you’re a conservative, and you think this. Never mind what you actually think.

The thrust of the piece is to stick up for the idea that Judge Sotomayor may have been selected in part because of her ethnicity and gender, as a good thing that should be neither side-stepped nor apologized for:

Still, even Obama, in announcing his choice, shied away from stating the obvious: that Sotomayor was picked in part because she is a Hispanic woman. (The President called his choice an “important step” but didn’t say why.) There was no need for such reticence. Earlier Presidents didn’t apologize for preserving the geographic balance, and this one need not be reluctant to acknowledge that Hispanics, the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic group, who by 2050 will represent a third of the American people, deserve a place at this most exclusive table for nine. (Nor, of course, did he note that the nomination was in part to satisfy Hispanic voters—the electoral benefit being another constant among Presidents.) As Barack Obama knows better than most, it is a sign of a mature and healthy society when the best of formerly excluded groups have the opportunity to earn their way to the top.

Actually, there IS good reason for such reticence and the president is to be praised for recognizing that. Mr. Toobin raises as an argument the tradition, dating to the earliest days of the Republic, of providing geographical balance on the court, followed by such notions as the “Catholic seat” or the “Jewish seat.” (Interesting thing about that is that if Sotomayor is confirmed, we’ll be down to one Protestant seat. Which is wonderful for me as a Catholic — or would be, if I didn’t consider it anathema to think in such terms.)

In fact, I think the “geographic balance” is a bad practice to institutionalize as well. If a legislature wants to have representatives of various congressional districts on a board or commission, OK. But in the absence of such requirements, it is a disservice for a president or governor to consider whether a person is from Charleston, or is Latina, or what have you. Those biographical details are points you MIGHT bring up in introducing a speaker, depending on the audience. But they are NOT qualifications for the Court, and only legitimate qualifications should enter into the discussion.

So no, comparing the idea of considering a nominee’s ethnicity to considering his or her hometown doesn’t strengthen your argument.

But that part is just hapless. This part, the part in which prejudices about what other people think are aired, is actually offensive:

As with earlier breakthrough nominations, Obama’s selection of Sotomayor has stirred some old-fashioned ugliness, and in that alone it serves as a reminder of the value of a diverse bench and society. Some anonymous portrayals of the Judge offered the kind of patronizing critiques (“not that smart”) that often greet outsiders at white-male preserves. Women who have integrated such bastions will be familiar, too, with the descriptions of her temperament (“domineering”), which are of a variety that tend to reveal more about the insecurity of male holdovers than about the comportment of female pioneers. The pernicious implication of such views is that white males, who constitute a hundred and six of the hundred and ten individuals who have served on the Court, made it on merit, and that Sotomayor is somehow less deserving.

People who share Mr. Toobin’s mindset are nodding their heads right now: Yep, that’s exactly what those pigs say about women. Yep, that’s the kind of code we hear about minorities. Which, to borrow Mr. Toobin’s condescending tone, tells you more about the nodders than it does about the people they’re nodding about.

Let me propose a couple of thoughts: What if she isn’t “all that smart?” I have no idea whether she is or not, but that can be true even of Latinas, you know, just as it can be of white Anglo men (and are you going to say you don’t know some white guys who aren’t as smart as they should be?). And what if she is domineering? That, too, is possible. It is not automatically impossible for a woman to be overbearing. She doesn’t get a free pass on that by virtue of gender — except among the people who are nodding at Mr. Toobin’s stereotypes.

The interesting thing that apparently escapes Mr. Toobin is that in fact, a white male would have to be very secure indeed in his judgment to offer such a criticism of a Latina nominee — if he dared to do it on the record and for attribution, which evidently none are doing, which is the only point here that argues for the insecurity Mr. Toobin suggests.

As for the last point in that paragraph: Exactly who said the other hundred and six individuals were immune to the objections of not being smart enough, or too domineering? I missed that part. Oh, yeah, I forgot: Surely all the powerful white guys out there ARE saying that, because, you know, that’s how they are. Everybody nod now.

Anyway, I had hoped for something more subtle and thoughtful and nuanced from The New Yorker. The cartoons are certainly more sophisticated than this. So is this wonderful little piece in the same edition, in which a Chinese woman describes what Hemingway meant to her in the summer she was watching her mother go mad. A sample:

I was reading “A Farewell to Arms” one night when my father came into my bedroom. The family was counting on me, he said. Neither he nor my sister could keep my mother from going mad. “She loves you more than your sister or me.” I promised to try my best. When he left, I turned off the light. There was not a trace of a breeze. Through the open window, I could hear a chess party, a group of old bachelors under a street lamp, laughingly cursing one another’s moves on the chessboard. I listened to a man slapping mosquitoes, and wished that I were the hero of Hemingway’s novel. I would have given up the use of both my legs to be in Italy, drinking vermouth, watching horse races, and exchanging off-color jokes with my fellow-officers as the old bachelors were doing outside.

Sound interesting? It was. I got something fresh and original and worth reading from each paragraph. But I can’t say the same for Mr. Toobin’s bit of partisan cheerleading. Or perhaps I should say, nodleading.

To conclude: One reason you don’t see me taking sides on Sotomayor — I might express concerns, or seize upon encouraging signs, but I have no idea whether she should be confirmed or not — is because I don’t subscribe to either side in this game.  I have to think for myself. And I have not had time — nor am I likely to have time — to study her record closely enough to pass judgment one way or the other.

Nor should I be expected to. That’s why we have a system of representative democracy. We elect people to take the time to study these things, and vote in good faith based upon their best judgment. Unfortunately, that breaks down when the elected representatives themselves surrender their thought processes to the parties and interest groups that depend upon pointless conflict for their very existence. And even more unfortunately, elected representatives are all too eager to do that.

17 thoughts on “The shallowness of commentary on Sotomayor

  1. Lee Muller

    The shallow coverage of the mainstream press consists of the political story – minority woman attacked by partisan GOP looking to smear her. The only examples are her quotes about white men and her one ruling to cheat white firefighters in order to socially promote non-whites.

    As usual, the Internet coverage by “amateurs” is deeper, and covers more of her court decisions.

    What scares many of us her ignoring the Constitution, just like Obama.
    In her latest decision, she said the Bill of Rights did not apply to state laws.

  2. Greg Flowers

    That is typical of what you get from Toobin. He is a smart guy but a “program” liberal, and lets that get in the way of objectivity.

    Sotomayor’s academic qualifications certainly seem to indicate someone who is very smart indeed. I would not expect Obama to nominate someone who would agree with me on any of a number of issues. My main concern is that she look to the law rather than to her experience as a wise Latino woman in reaching decisions

  3. Greg Flowers

    The New yorker is still a good magazine but I miss the LONG literary pieces of the William Shawn era. Tina Brown took a winner and screwed it up in the name of relevance.

  4. Brad Warthen

    Good points, Greg. Given what you had said right before, I thought you were going to say, “I would not expect Obama to nominate someone who… was dumb.” That would have been a good point, too. He’s a smart guy. Whether I agree with the views of his nominee or not, I would expect her to be smart.

  5. Brad Warthen

    As for the New Yorker, the cartoons remain my favorite part (although I do recommend that little essay I mentioned by Yiyun Li.

    Here’s one of their cartoons I saw today and enjoyed:

    Office manager, in caption: “Hey, Sisyphus, when you’ve got a minute I’d like to discuss this progress report with you.”
    Sisyphus, in thought balloon: “Uh-oh.”
    Sisyphus, of course, is shown pushing a boulder across the office…

  6. Bart

    It has been an adventure trying to find anything relevant about Sotomayor other than the ususal pablum dished out by her supporters. Of course, this is the same tactic used by supporters of any nominee to the SCOTUS whether it be Roberts, Alito, Ginsberg, et al.

    If we are naive enough to believe for one moment Obama is not going to appoint someone in line with his beliefs, we are indeed an uneducated or ignorant population when it comes to recognizing the politics and ideology of who is in the White House. Of course she is intelligent, well educated, liberal, chauvinistic, an activist, and when faced with a case that is not clear under the rule of existing law or one subject to challenge, she will interpret the Constitution according to her beliefs, background, politics, and cultural heritage (although I think the Puerto Rican heritage reference is overplayed since she never lived there). Her concept of the Constitution and its relevancy is in lockstep with Obama’s.

    As I commented before, she will be confirmed with little or no real opposition or in depth questioning by Republicans and definitely not Democrats. I do not advocate allowing confirmation of anyone who is not thoroughly vetted about anything that raises a question or needs clarification by a significant portion of the citizenry should be examined in a fair and impartial manner but again, be thorough. We should have a very clear idea of who will be making life altering decisions for us during their tenure on the bench.

    The political show will be interesting since it will have nothing to do with our actual legal system.

  7. jfx

    That’s all it is….a show. This is so overblown. She’s thoroughly, eminently qualified, which is why there will be nothing more than symbolic bluster from the usual suspects, the usual legalese non-committal (i.e. smart) answers from her, as is typical of any SCOTUS candidate, when asked inappropriate ham-fisted theoretical questions about specific cases….and then she’ll be confirmed and the whole world will forget about her.

    Obama was smart enough to pick someone who he didn’t know personally, who has massive relevant professional experience, and whose professional case history does not betray a tendency to put ideology ahead of legal precedent. Sure she’s a liberal. It makes sense that a liberal president would pick a liberal judge. But her rulings suggest that she is a “liberal” judge….and not a “Liberal” judge, if you get my drift.

    So, he made an excellent pick. He could have easily picked an active member or close friend of Team Obama, someone like Valerie Jarrett, or Napolitano, or Jennifer Granholm. But he went outside of his own team, and outside of Chicago politics, too. Sotomayor doesn’t strike me as a lockstep, automaton crony. Harriet Miers, she ain’t.

  8. bud

    Much ado is made about how important it is to have a judiciary that follows the constitution and the law rather than ruling in a partisan manner. I say bunk! In my view it is far more important for a justice to do what is right and then let the constitution follow rather than blandly trying to interpret what a bunch of long-dead 18th century meant to occur. Frankly it would be impossible to interpret the founding fathers belief on modern technological issues such as electronic media, wiretapping, assault rifles or anything else that that did not exist when Benjamin Franklin was alive.

    So I say to justice Sotomayer be a good liberal partisan and do the right thing. After all, at the end of the day, everyone on the bench is a partisan. Scalia for all his bluster is just as much a partisan, activist justice as anyone who has ever been on the bench. For conservatives to say otherwise is simply laughable.

  9. Lee Muller

    bud and jfx exhibit the ignorance of a basic understanding of the Rule of Law and the American system of government. They want the rule of men.

    America was colonized by thousands of people who had escaped the capricious sham courts of the King of England, or who had been sent here in exile after all their wealth was confiscated by the Crown. They knew the danger of partisan judges

    The Constitution did not attempt to write the laws for all time, but to define government as small and restricted, of limited authority. The legal issues involving electronic media, wiretapping, and “assault rifles” are no different than the legal issues involving Peter Zenger and the attempt of the British Army to seize the gunpowder of the militia at Bunker Hill. And the oppressive mentality of Obama partisans is no different than the mentality of the supporters of King George.

  10. Birch Barlow

    In my view it is far more important for a justice to do what is right and then let the constitution follow rather than blandly trying to interpret what a bunch of long-dead 18th century meant to occur.

    I agree. Likewise, it is also more important for a President to do what he thinks is right rather than to follow the law. And for a governor. And a cop. And me.

  11. Brad Warthen

    Yeah, when I get to be president, I’m afraid I’m not going to nominate bud. Sorry. I’ve got this thing about the Rule of Law. I’d find something for bud — maybe a nice ambassadorship (to a country to which we know we won’t have to send troops, because bud doesn’t like that). But I’m afraid he’s off my list of court nominees.

  12. Lee Muller

    bud and his ilk were recently feigning outrage at “President Bush shredding the Constitution” and “violating the rule of law” with his push for the Patriot Act.

    If they are so unconcerned with law, why do they want a federal court which will create laws and enforce them on the Other Side, the people whom they don’t like? Why don’t they just call for anarchy, so they can smoke all the dope and have all the abortions they want? Because they don’t want individual liberty. They want liberty for themselves, and to force others to provide them with goods and services and a comfortable lifestyle they do not have to earn with work.

  13. jfx

    Bud, rather frothingly, wants a “liberal partisan,” but what’s attractive about Sotomayor, and what makes her nomination virtually impossible to derail, is the decoupling of that phrase when it comes to her professional career. Liberal, yes. Partisan? No.

    Yes, it is possible to respect the rule of law without being a dogmatic constructionist.

  14. Bart

    jfx, good point and astute observation. I have my objections to Sotomayor but nothing to deny her a seat on the SCOTUS. Of course she is liberal as you and I said, I fully expect her to take her liberalism into consideration when deciding on a ruling. Yes, conservatives do the same but in the end, with a few exceptions, the SCOTUS has done a good job overall. The potential of it being totally out of balance down the road should be our main concern, not the confirmation of Sotomayor at this point.

    (((…One point Sotomayor made during her comments at Duke was that activism and judicial changes are more at the appeals level and she is right on point. That is the area of the judiciary where we should be concerned and paying attention to it more than we do…)))

    The Constitution is a framework for our system of government and laws. It is not an absolute and any thinking person with an iota of common sense understands it.

    It provides for changes by way of amendments of which the first ten are called the Bill of Rights. Since the first ten were enacted, 17 more have been added. Not all have been ratified but even those have become recognized as legitimate. There is a process involved with adding an amendment and it was put in place to avoid a reaction in a knee jerk manner over whatever the hot political button of the day may or may not be.

    What it does do is prevent the silliness of suggestions by bud and Birch. We do live under the Rule of Law and it is reassuring that we do. If we each do what we think is “the right thing”, who is to determine what is “the right thing” for all of us? I think these “long dead” men who drafted the Constitution understood the temptation for those in authority to do “the right thing” instead of follow the Rule of Law. Methinks they were a helluva a lot smarter, more intelligent, and mature than bud or Birch or Lee or jfx or me.

    If you two can come up with something better, then lay it out for us and maybe we can get the current congress to put it before the public to vote on.

    And, for those who were not paying attention, our European friends recently gave a major thumbs down for the rampant socialist system that has broken their financial backs and has been a failure. Since so many here envy and idolize the European model, please explain why the socialists were turned out in droves. Remember, Rush Limbaugh is not a player on the European scene so his “purported” influence doesn’t count.

    Gee, Fiat is taking over Chrysler or at least the parts the unions and Obama’s doesn’t own or control. All of the bondholders who were by the “Rule of Law” were supposed to be first in line for compensation under our existing bankruptcy laws were conveniently shoved aside. The bondholders who were left out of the equation were not the big, rich brokers or hedge fund managers. They are the teachers, firemen, policemen, and others who “invested” their retirement funds in Chrysler. Of course, it was the “right thing to do” wasn’t it? The Constitution be damned.

    Wait a minute, bud and Birch already have what they want without having to go through bothersome procedures like hearings and a ratification process.

  15. Bart

    Sorry Birch, it has been a long week and my sense of humor disappeared after a series of setbacks. I thought at first your comments were meant to be sarcasm but reacted as if they weren’t. Took it too seriously I guess.

    Anyway, have a good day.

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