Tuesday, June 9, 2009

What a Relief

David Brooks breathes a sigh of relief now that he’s discovered that Judge Sonia Sotomayor, in spite of being a Hispanic woman, might be able to deliver a judicial opinion that actually considers the law and precedent in making her ruling.

Sonia Sotomayor had bad timing. If she’d entered college in the late-1950s or early-1960s, she would have been surrounded by an ethos that encouraged smart young ethnic kids to assimilate. If she’d entered Princeton and Yale in the 1980s, her ethnicity and gender would have been mildly interesting traits among the many she might possibly possess.

But she happened to attend Princeton and then Yale Law School in the 1970s. These were the days when what we now call multiculturalism was just coming into its own. These were the days when the whole race, class and gender academic-industrial complex seemed fresh, exciting and just.

There was no way she was going to get out of that unscarred. And, in fact, in the years since she has given a series of speeches that have made her a poster child for identity politics. In these speeches, race and gender take center stage. It’s not only the one comment about a wise Latina making better decisions than a white male; it’s the whole litany. If you just read these speeches you might come away with the impression that she was a racial activist who is just using the judicial system as a vehicle for her social crusade.

And yet her history and conversations with her colleagues suggest this is not the main story. If you look at the whole record, you come away with the impression that Sotomayor is a hard-working, careful-though-unspectacular jurist whose primary commitment is to the law.

What a shock! A smart and intelligent lawyer who, in spite of her gender and racial handicaps, is actually more than one dimensional and doesn’t fit into the cultural stereotypes he’s come to rely on ever since he saw West Side Story. And wow, she’s not let race and gender take center stage and color — so to speak — her interpretation of the law, any more than the hundreds or thousands of other judges who have come before her who happen to be white and male; they never took those elements into account, did they?

In short, Sotomayor’s career surpasses the crude categories she sometimes articulates. Despite the ideas she picked up while young, she has, over many years, chosen to submit herself to the discipline of the law, and she has not abused its institutions. I hope she’s confirmed.

And I’m sure Judge Sotomayor sleeps better knowing that she has the patriarchal and patronizing blessing of Mr. Brooks.