Judge Sonia Sotomayor, a Bronx Tale in Context

sotomayorcollage photo source: CNN

This is how I responded to the first person who asked me, via Twitter, to react to Judge Sonia Sotomayor‘s nomination to the Supreme Court. “Barack Obama has great taste in women,” I twittered.  Michelle Obama. Hillary Clinton. Susan Rice. The women around him, well, kick-ass. Today, Latinas across America have cause to celebrate. Judge Sotomayor, 54, reflects an accessible, no-nonsense mother wit I hope will come to define bipartisan politics in the years to come. Judge Sotomayor represents the future of America: she’s a first-generation American, born to Puerto Rican parents in the South Bronx. She grew up in the projects and found herself attending a couple of this country’s most lauded universities. She understands how difficult it is to trek through American society as a child of immigrant parents. Sotomayor scares the American Ruling Class, so, predictably they will try and paint her as a radical until the very last stroke. Today, she’s been called a racist and sexist for stating, “…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.”

And so I read the speech—the Judge Mario G. Olmos Memorial Lecture was delivered in 2001 at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law—from which the incendiary quote was extracted from, in its entirety. Surprise, surprise! It was taken out of context (don’t take my word for it, though,: read it and judge for yourselves):

Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, a possibility I abhor less or discount less than my colleague Judge Cedarbaum, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging. Justice O’Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases. I am not so sure Justice O’Connor is the author of that line since Professor Resnik attributes that line to Supreme Court Justice Coyle. I am also not so sure that I agree with the statement. First, as Professor Martha Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, 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.

Let us not forget that wise men like Oliver Wendell Holmes and Justice Cardozo voted on cases which upheld both sex and race discrimination in our society. Until 1972, no Supreme Court case ever upheld the claim of a woman in a gender discrimination case. I, like Professor Carter, believe that we should not be so myopic as to believe that others of different experiences or backgrounds are incapable of understanding the values and needs of people from a different group. Many are so capable. As Judge Cedarbaum pointed out to me, nine white men on the Supreme Court in the past have done so on many occasions and on many issues including Brown.

I think that Judge Sotomayor was merely playing to the crowd she was addressing. Often times, when people of color speak to their experiences in America, they have to tred lightly for fear of being branded a radical or, worse, a racist. Judge Sotomayor was there to empower, educate, and inform Latino students and faculty about her unique experiences growing up Nuyorican in the South Bronx and America. Period.

Comments 11

  1. Obama made a wise choice. As he stated earlier today, she has far more experience than any other sitting justice possessed prior to his/her nomination. He made a bold choice by nominating a Latina.

    This is a proud day for my mother, a Nuyorican, coming of age in the 1960’s. She was a very intelligent young woman at the top her high school graduating class. Fluent in 4 languages, she had a very promising future (full scholarship to F.I.T.). There was one problem. She had a mother that didn’t believe in her. She felt that post-secondary education was a waste of time for a young Latina. Sadly, my mother heeded her advice and gave it all up. She had no Judge Sotomayor look to for inspiration. She looks back on this time with regret and she wishes she had this moment to live again. She is proud today. Proud that a Boricua with a similar background succeeded in spite of naysayers like my grandmother.

    I am proud today. Proud that my daughter (age 2) has many role models to choose from, including Michele Obama and now, Sonia Sotomayor. She will use their life examples as fuel to combat any future naysayers.

    I agree with your assessment of her speech. The second her nomination was announced, conservatives were on the attack. She is prepared for this. Obama is prepared for this. She has no skeletons, only the powerful words that speak to her experience as a Latina in this country. Let hate make noise. She will ultimately be confirmed.

  2. I am excited by Sotomayor’s nomination and am looking forward to reading the insane attacks launched by the GOP. You know how they do.

    What’s awesome about this nomination is the fact that meritocracy (sometimes) work in this country and she is proof of this. Here is a Latina who came out of the projects in the Bronx and made it through to the Ivy Leagues and now a Supreme Court nomination all because of her hard work. I would be less truthful if I did not admit that the cynic in me is crushed. Sotomayor’s nomination has also elevated the imaginations and dreams of millions of Latinas in the Americas yesterday; except, maybe, the ones who identify as Republican.

  3. Especially proud moment for me as a Bronx girl. Our President’s continues to walk the walk and I’m so happy that Judge Sotomayer is going to part of that journey.

  4. she can’t be a 1st generation american, if her parents are puerto rican, seeing as how puerto rico is a part of the united states… she’s simply american.

  5. I am so proud to be an American! Wow! And I am so proud of Judge Sotomayor!!!!! You go girl!!!! Obama does have great taste in women, he’s amazing. Could all this be true? Are we living in a dream? Don’t wake me!

  6. She’s the best judge for this position. Even though some of the media are maligning her, I honestly think President Obama made a good pick. I hope the nomination sees itself through cause this will be big for both the Hispanic Community and also for America. Sotomayor is a heroin! Good job sis on blogging about this…:)


    Judge Sotomayor definitely seems to be extremely qualified. I can only imagine -but could care less- how Rush Limbaugh feels. Her appointment would lead to a serious slippage of Republican’s self-image. Until then, her selection is far more intelligent, impactful and meaningful than that of having Daddy Yankee perform at the RNC.

    – K

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  9. Charlie Rose had an informative segment on Judge Sonia Sotomayer today. Very informative…Im very excited for her and for people of color in American politics being celebrated for their expertise. Its about time!

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