A strange new respect

On the eve of Judge Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, I continue to think that non-liberal Senators should vote against confirming her under the standard established by Democrats during the confirmation of John Roberts and Samuel Alito. That standard holds that consistent disagreement with the outcome of a judge’s decisions in important cases is sufficient grounds for voting against that judge’s elevation to the Supreme Court.

At the same time, I have to admit that there are important aspects of Judge Sotomayor’s “biography,” including some of her quirks, that cause me to like and respect her.

Sotomayor must have figured out early on that in order to advance academically and in her chosen profession, she did not need to be at or near the top of the “list;” rather she only needed to be at or near the top of the Hispanic list. Yet it does not appear that she was ever content just to be the best available Hispanic or Latina. For example, she reportedly compensated for what she herself perceived as a weakness in her writing, through an aggressive independent reading program and by becoming an obsessive “grammarian” who reportedly nitpicks the grammar in opinions drafted by her colleagues (one of her quirks).

Sotomayor is also said to be one of the hardest workers among her judicial colleagues (as she was as a lawyer and before that as a student). This devotion to her job reportedly has exacted a heavy toll on her social life and her efforts at long-term romantic relationships. Sotomayor’s obsession over the details of the record (another of her quriks) is probably further manifestation, though perhaps a misguided one, of her drive to excel.

Those close to Sotomayor attribute this drive to her “insecurities” as an “outsider.” Stated differently, it seems that, for her entire adult life, Sotomayor has been on a quest to rise above her status as an “affirmative action baby” and to compete on even terms or better with non-minority lawyers and judges. This is surely admirable.

For most psychological “actions” there is a reaction. At the risk of indulging in psycho-babble, I would suggest that Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” statements can be understood in this context. The psychological toll of constantly trying to overcome one’s “outsider insecurities” through hard work is surely considerable. How tempting it must have been, then, for Sotomayor to embrace the view of those academics who argue that just being a Latina and experiencing the things Latinas experience (including the self-doubts that drive her) is itself a relevant virtue in her quest to be a top-notch judge.

The good news, though, is that Sotomayor’s embrace of this silly, pernicious notion does not appear to have interfered with the habits she acquired during her quest to overcome her status as an affirmative action baby. In other words, even if Judge Sotomayor believes in the “magical” power of the wise Latina, she “competes” in the traditional way, through hard work and efforts at self-improvement.

Has Judge Sotomayor competed successfully? Yes, in the sense that she has made herself into a competent left-liberal jurist. No, in the sense that she is a Supreme Court nominee by virtue of being at the top of the Hispanic left-liberal list, not the top of the left-liberal list.

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