Outside column: Senators' attacks on Sotomayor unjust

Posted: Friday, July 17, 2009

I'm baffled that some senators have viciously attacked Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

Too often I've heard talk about the lack of the so-called Protestant work ethic in minority communities and how if only poor minorities worked harder, pursued higher education and stopped depending on government welfare programs, then they, too, could achieve the American Dream.

But what happened when President Obama appointed the exact type of hard-working and ambitious individual that these politicians say they admire - the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps ideal - to replace retiring Justice David Souter on the Supreme Court?

Instead of applauding someone with Ivy League degrees from Princeton and Yale Law School, someone with 17 years of experience on the federal bench, someone with the highest rating from the American Bar Association, some have engaged in a smear campaign aimed at portraying Sotomayor as biased and outside the mainstream.

Prior to this week's hearings, the de-facto leaders of the dysfunctional Republican Party, which includes former Speaker Newt Gingrich, political commentator Pat Buchanan and talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh, portrayed Sotomayor as a racist and radical judge.

At the hearings, Republican members such as Sens. Jeff Sessions, (Ala.), Lindsey Graham, (S.C.), Jon Kyl, (Ariz.), and Orrin Hatch, (Utah), acted as if they had the moral high ground on the issue of prejudice. This is the same Republican Party that opposed many of the major civil rights laws in the past 45 years.

While the members did show more restraint when directly questioning Sotomayor as compared to right-wing commentators, they still played a divisive game by harping on Sotomayor's "wise Latina" remark, even after she herself had backed off it. Laughably, the senators attempted to portray themselves paragons of impartiality.

Something is wrong with this picture.

I hope most Americans will recognize and renounce the condescending line of questioning by these senators. It should not be lost on the American public that here we had a few privileged white men standing in judgment of a highly accomplished female member of a minority group that has historically been exploited for low-wage work, segregated in inner cities and treated as second class.

Sotomayor was absolutely correct when she said, "We're not robots." She explained what should have been obvious to the senators: "Life experiences have to influence you." But she insisted that "the law is what commands the result," not your feelings or life experiences, which a judge must put aside.

Sessions, who led the charge against Sotomayor, himself has a history of making prejudiced comments, a history that prevented him from being approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee two decades ago for a U.S. district court judgeship. For instance, he called white civil rights lawyers "race traitors" and said he used to think the Ku Klux Klan was OK until he found out some members smoked marijuana.

Maybe his own life experiences and prejudices have been influencing him too much.

The Senate Judiciary Committee and the entire Senate should confirm the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court. She has proven - with her impressive record and her calm and thoughtful presentation at the hearings this week - that she is eminently qualified for the job.

• Alvaro Huerta is a student at the University of California at Berkeley and a visiting scholar at UCLA's Chicano Studies Research Center. He wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine.

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