The U.S. Senate’s Judiciary Committee begins its confirmation hearings today for nominee Sonya Sotomayor. The Post had a great piece yesterday from her collegiate mentor at Princeton that shows her to be precisely the kind of hard-working, fair-minded, and deeply read person we want on the Court.
It appears that Sotomayor’s nomination is assured but that does not mean the hearings will be boring, as another article in this morning’s paper indicates. This may be the GOP’s last chance to rehearse the Nixon strategy of playing to white resentment, a strategy that might work for fending off a primary challenge from the base but could also continue to alienate Latino voters from the Republican ranks. George W. Bush, who supported comprehensive immigration reform, garnered 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2004 but that support collapsed after the GOP in Congress killed the immigration reform effort and the primaries forced even John McCain to abandon his support for it. McCain only took 30 percent of the Latino vote according to exit polls, a drop that cost him the states of Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and most likely Florida as well.
Sotomayor is from Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans have had very different experiences of life in America from that of other Latinos. For starters, they are already citizens, so they do not have to face the hurdle of attaining a legal status here. Their immigration to the states came before either the Cuban emigration of the 1960s or the large increase in Central American workers over the past several decades. This is why Puerto Ricans often, like Sotomayor, are the first to break through the glass ceilings.
You can pick almost any sector of the government or business and find a talented Puerto Rican in place. I once had a truly bizarre incident that highlights this point. I was preparing to move to Little Rock and was making a round of phone calls to say good-bye. On one such, I forgot to put in the area code digits. A person picked up the phone at the other end of the line and said, "White House Situation Room." Oops. But, here was the freaky part. The person who picked up the phone was a Puerto Rican State Department official who I have known since he was born. His name was further down on my list of people to call. It took us awhile to figure out what had happened.
In the ecclesiastical realm, Puerto Ricans have a slightly different status because in the Church, Puerto Rico is part of Latin America, not part of the U.S. So, Archbishop of San Juan Roberto Gonzalez, is a member of CELAM not the USCCB, but he attends the USCCB meetings as an observer and, because he served previously as bishop of Corpus Christi and auxiliary in Boston, he is often in the states as he was this past Saturday for the ordination of J. Augustine DiNoia, O.P. to the episcopate. Also, Puerto Ricans paved the way, in a negative manner, for other Latinos. In the 1950s, Cardinal Spellman refused to build national parishes for the Puerto Ricans the way the Church had done for the Poles and the French and the Hungarians. Evangelicals made strong inroads into the Puerto Rican community by opening small churches in their neighborhoods. By the time the Cubans and Central Americans came, the U.S. Church recognized the need of having a special apostolate.
There is one lesson I hope the White House does not learn from the hearings. In the post, a liberal activist argues, "The stronger the vote [for Sotomayor], the stronger is the message to the president and his team that we have some bandwidth here, or some leeway for more progressive nominees. That’s why there’s so much energy for a candidate that you pretty much know is going to be confirmed." I think the reason Sotomayor is such a slamdunk is not because of liberal bandwidth, but precisely because she is not overly liberal, because she brings experience as a trial judge that no other justice has, and because even on the cases where you disagree with her decisions, it is not hard to see how she was trying to apply Supreme Court precedents. I hope the President recognizes that nominating centrist to the bench helps him with mainstream, independent voters. The activists who want the president to lurch to the left have to ask themselves one question: How will your proposed course of action play with a voter who went for Bush in 2004 and Obama in 2008? Those are the voters that matter most and I suspect the President and his team are acutely aware of that.
So, tune in to the hearings. They will permit all Americans to get to know Sotomayor better, as well as how the GOP plans to mold itself for the future. I suspect she will shine and I suspect the GOP senators will be less hostile than their activist base wants. There will be no Borking this time round and much of the credit for that fact goes to President Obama for nominating such a top flight judge.