A Persistent Pioneer

Posted on June 1st, 2009 by Katherine Franke
williams1From Columbia Law School Professor Patricia Williams, via The Daily Beast:

President Obama’s nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor just plain fills me with delight. She’s brilliant, she’s fair, she’s an inspiration on many, many levels. That she is the first Puerto Rican or Latina nominee, appointed by the first Afro-Hawaiian-Kansan-Kenyan-American president, just makes this moment all the more extraordinary in our history.

But the trajectory of Judge Sotomayor’s career owes much to the collective efforts of the civilSonia Sotomayor-rights movement, in its most encompassing sense. Now 54, she came of age when doors were just opening to allow significant numbers of women, Latinos, or any other sort of minority into the legal profession. I’m three years older than Sotomayor, and when I started teaching in 1980, there were six women of color in the entire United States in legal academia—four African Americans, one Asian American, and one Latina. Our numbers in the judiciary were just as sparse. So Sotomayor is among that generation of often lonely but extraordinary and persistent pioneers.

I’m confident she’ll be confirmed. At the same time, I am bracing myself for the predicted battle, some degree of which I’m already seeing in the media—to wit, commentary about her being “strident,” or “bullying,” when all examples of such seem to fall well within what any male judge would be embraced for as “decisive” rather than “opinionated. ”

On Tuesday morning I was listening to The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC radio and a lawyer called in to complain that Sotomayor once told counsel that his brief was one of the worst she had seen and verged on the unprofessional. The caller fumed that this proved her unsuitability to serve on the highest court.

I’m sorry, but this felt like pure sexism to me. Who would ever question a male judge’s authority to declare that a brief was below par? What does it imply about her perceived credibility as “judge” that her indisputably measured declaration of substandard performance (no yelling, no posturing, just a simple declarative sentence) becomes turned into an indictment of her “temperament”?

Another thing I’m struck by is how much the media confine her “experience”—as though it were not a source of legitimate, professional information. They keep using the word “experience” in an entirely romantic way—like George Jefferson, “moving on up” from the cotton fields of the South Bronx. But the compelling weight of her experience is revealed in her résumé: summa cum laude from Princeton, editor of Yale Law Review. This much alone is no easy feat. It’s a unique and extraordinary accomplishment for anyone: male, female, white, Latina, rich, or poor.

But also she has a variety of practical experience under her belt, experience as a prosecutor, experience as trial judge, experience as corporate lawyer, experience as an appellate judge. Very few on the Supreme Court have ever enjoyed this breadth of experience.

So rather than localizing this as something internal to her—some kind of Kumbaya, “walking in the moccasins of the downtrodden” thing—let’s get a grip and remember that “experience” means her résumé. And when it comes down to the objective litany of her accomplishments, Judge Sonia Sotomayor is both a legal powerhouse and an American dream come true.

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