No Free Ride for Sotomayor

Posted: May 29, 2009 12:01 AM

You know what would be a nice change of pace? A nominee for public office whose compelling life story didn't remind me of my pitiably self-indulgent life.

Fortunately, while overachievers can induce some self-loathing, when it comes to public service, spectacular life stories are irrelevant.

Adversity does not grant anyone superhuman intellect or a Solomon-like temperament. And gripping tales of perseverance should not make one impenetrable to criticism.

Much has been made of political repercussions for Republicans if they dare target Barack Obama's pick for the Supreme Court, Judge Sonia Sotomayor -- a Latina who grew up in a deprived neighborhood in the South Bronx.

New York's hyper-yammering senator, Chuck Schumer, claims that the Republican Party would do so at its "own peril" -- alluding, no doubt, in part to blowback from the Hispanic community.

If Republicans take this kind of bigoted advice, they will have done the country a great disservice. Hispanics are a diverse minority group, not a bunch of lock-stepping, hypersensitive onlookers unable to handle a serious debate.

Now, it is true that Sotomayor once unleashed her own unsightly gibberish about race, claiming that "a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

If one felt like being a contrarian, one might argue that emotional baggage of a "rich" worldview has the potential to hinder a judge from fulfilling her oath of "equal right to the poor and to the rich and … faithfully and impartially" discharging her duties.

Take, if you will, one of Sotomayor's most criticized decisions.

The Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in Ricci v. DeStefano, a reverse discrimination case in Connecticut involving the New Haven Fire Department. The department administered a test to promote 15 people to captain or lieutenant, but no African-Americans passed. The city trashed the exam and refused to promote the folks who did pass, concocting a new test instead. One of the firefighters who was denied was a 34-year-old dyslexic named Frank Ricci, who had worked his tail off to pass the test.

When the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals got to the case, Sotomayor joined a short opinion dismissing it. It prompted her colleague Jose Cabranes -- appointed by President Bill Clinton and widely considered a liberal -- to claim that Sotomayor's "opinion contains no reference whatsoever to the constitutional claims at the core of this case."

Maybe Sotomayor's deep experiences have predisposed her to believe that reverse discrimination is not possible. Maybe not. But Republicans are on solid ground if they go after Sotomayor regarding this case. They have a duty, in fact, to grill the Supreme Court nominee aggressively on many of her decisions.

But whatever they do -- actually, this is sound advice for all organisms in the galaxy -- never, ever follow Joe Biden's lead.

During the contentious Clarence Thomas hearings, in 1991, then-Sen. Biden claimed that "the only reason Clarence Thomas is on the court is because he is black. I don't believe he could have won had he been white."

Imagine how much anger would be unleashed if a comparable statement were made about Sotomayor and Latinas. (Thomas, by the way, had a compelling personal story, graduated from Yale Law School and served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.)

Unless some unforeseen ethical questions emerge about Sotomayor, Republicans should follow their own advice and allow an up-and-down vote. Sotomayor's professional qualifications are impeccable, and her experience is impressive.

But Republicans have no reason to shy away from ideological debates or the vetting of Sotomayor, because neither is personal or "racist."

On the other hand, those who contend that a minority candidate should be treated with kid gloves? That suggests something quite ugly.