Supreme Stereotypes

After much hype and speculation, President Obama announced his nomination to replace Justice David Souter on the Supreme Court: Sonia Sotomayor, currently a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals. A lot of attention has been paid to the fact that, if confirmed, Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic ever to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. She’s also been hailed as a ‘triple threat’ in terms of appealing to minorities: she’s female, Hispanic and from an underprivileged economic background, being the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants.

That’s all well and good, making her sensitive to the needy and neglected. But in Obama’s pursuit of ‘transcending’ race and in the year we elected a black president, shouldn’t those things be starting to matter less? Much of Obama’s campaign ran on the idea of looking beyond labels like race and religion, focusing more on ideals and ideas. Recently he has spoken a lot about choosing a judge with empathy and one who would interpret the law instead of creating it. As much I’m sure he looked for those things, it also seems that to a certain extent he was just trying to play the cards right. His four finalists were all female, when there have only been two women justices, and he ended up nominating the one who would also mark a racial landmark and represent the impoverished and immigrant communities. Maybe she is the best woman for the job, but looked at that way, it seems kind of shallow.

Which makes me wonder why playing to the different labels and groups is so important in nominating a justice, especially when she needs to be confirmed by a Senate that is mostly white males. Are we trying to appeal to those groups the nominee represents? Are we trying to represent the non-elite in every possible way? Are we trying to win with as many groups as possible? Clearly, there are people who don’t like her or approve of her political positions, even within her own gender, ethnic and socioeconomic subgroups, so trying to please everyone is never going to happen.

It seems more likely Obama wants to avoid making the bench any more elite or homogeneous. But the thing is, no one is entirely in the minority, just as no one is always in the majority. Her nomination works to more accurately represent the nation and to make the court more diverse in terms of gender and race, but here’s the catch: If confirmed, Sotomayor would be the sixth Catholic in the group of nine judges. Two-thirds of the Supreme Court would identify themselves with the Catholic faith, which not only is completely out of line with the American public, but also would make Sotomayor solidly in the majority. Now, in my thinking, it is silly to imply that all Catholics would think and judge alike, but, if applying the logic that makes it so important for Sotomayor to be female and Hispanic, it seems they would.

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