Sotomayor vs. Obama

I agree with you, Emily. Sen. Kyl did a good job questioning Judge Sotomayor on the question of being a “wise Latina.” He was much better than Sen. Jeff Sessions, who took a similar run at the issue earlier. Kyl was precise and exact in walking through the judge’s comments and was (largely) intellectually honest about the progress of the argument she was advancing. It was a model of how you can ask these kinds of questions without sounding mean or bullying.

Sotomayor has done a better job explaining herself than the White House has. Throughout the day, she’s argued that she was encouraging young lawyers to be proud of their heritage, but she wasn’t advocating that they use it to sway their decision-making or that it necessarily made them better. The White House claim that she “misspoke” wasn’t exactly right, and it left the misimpression that she’d made a one-time goof. As intellectually shabby as it was, however, the White House handling did effectively get it past the political “controversy” for that key moment.

As Sotomayor explained her remarks, she tried to lay out the progress of her argument as it was presented in the speech. It reminded me of something Sen. Lindsey Graham said yesterday in his opening remarks about wanting to have judges who weren’t afraid to speak their minds. It’s harder and harder to have a searching thought in public. If you press an idea or, as Sotomayor has claimed, make a “rhetorical riff,” you’re going to pay for it later. That’s not a new thought, of course, but that’s what we’re seeing here.

If you look at the speech, there’s a basis for arguing that this was a contained riff, because right after Sotomayor talked about a “wise Latina” making better decisions, she explicitly embraced a more ambiguous view: “My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage.” She’s accepting the uncontroversial view that experiences play a role in our lives, but she’s not sure whether that’s better or worse.

One other note: Sotomayor has totally thrown Obama overboard. Asked whether she agreed with Obama’s claim that because Supreme Court cases are so difficult judges often have to rule with their heart, Judge Sotomayor disagreed: “I wouldn’t approach the view of judging the way the president does.” Later, she said, “It’s not the heart that compels; it’s the law.” So Sotomayor disagrees with part of the criteria used to select her. But I’m pretty sure she’d still vote for herself.