The Magazine

'A Wise Latina Woman'

The context shows that Judge Sotomayor meant what she said.

Jun 15, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 37 • By JENNIFER RUBIN
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Not since Rose Mary Woods made "18  " famous has a number so absorbed the attention of the media and political establishment. But with President Barack Obama's nomination of Second Circuit judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court to replace retiring Justice David Souter, Washington has become transfixed by "32"--the number of words in a startling passage from the Judge Mario G. Olmos Memorial Lecture that Sotomayor delivered at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law in 2001 and published the following spring in the Berkeley La Raza Law Journal.

The sentence that set off a furious round of spin by supporters and of criticism by opponents of Sotomayor's nomination reads as follows: "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

This sort of ethnic condescension is routinely bandied about among academics and those who style themselves "civil rights" advocates. But in general public parlance it is problematic in the extreme. As a political analyst confided privately, the sentence in question "is utterly absurd, and I say that as someone who believes that diversity is a good thing in Court appointments and just about everything else. .  .  . No one's gender or ethnicity bestows an edge in wisdom. What a fatuous concept."

The hapless White House press secretary Robert Gibbs at first refused to address Sotomayor's words. By the end of the week though he declared, "I think she'd say that her word choice in 2001 was poor." Sotomayor herself, according to Senator Dianne Feinstein, said that "if you read on and read the rest of my speech you wouldn't be concerned with it but it was a poor choice of words."

The following week the excuse of inadvertence unraveled. Sotomayor had used similar or identical words in speeches between 1994 and 2003, the most recent at Seton Hall, in which the same "wise Latina" formulation was used. And Sotomayor is a meticulous draftsman, as she explained in a separate 1994 speech on the importance of clear writing, in which she boasted that she repeatedly edits her work.

However, the president had already weighed in, pronouncing, "I'm sure she would have restated it. But if you look in the entire sweep of the [speech] that she wrote, what's clear is that she was simply saying that her life experiences will give her information about the struggles and hardships that people are going through that will make her a good judge."

But that is precisely not what the entire sweep of the speech conveys. Indeed, Sotomayor took nearly 4,000 words to say the opposite. The president's characterization of the speech is as false as Sotomayor's reassurances to Feinstein are misleading. The White House is no doubt banking on the media and public's unwillingness to seek out the Berkeley La Raza Law Journal and read Sotomayor's musings in their entirety. In contrast to Judge Richard Paez of the Ninth Circuit, a liberal Hispanic appellate judge who addressed the same Berkeley audience, Sotomayor propounded not warm and fuzzy feelings of ethnic pride but radical views of multiculturalism and of judging itself.

Sotomayor's speech is in many ways a distillation of the most extreme views of the liberal civil rights establishment. They have dispensed with Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of a "colorblind" society, in which people "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." The notion of a shared American tradition is considered a dodge for maintaining white, male domination of society. Instead, they aim to secure the levers of power, to empower disadvantaged groups to pursue their distinct ideology, culture, and language. It is not enough to eliminate barriers to entry in business, universities, government, or the bench; numerical quotas are essential to securing each group's "fair share." And most critically, group identity and goals supplant individual identity and professional obligations. Each of these elements, the core of the most extreme variety of contemporary multiculturalism, is prominently featured in Sotomayor's speech and law review article.