Facing Down Condescension and Lectures, Sotomayor Teaches Senators About Civics and More

Jill Filipovic

Surrounded by senators dripping with condescension, Judge Sotomayor responded with respect, nuance and a solid grounding in the law - to the point where the hearings sometimes felt like a high school civics class.

Editor’s Note: A correction was made in this article at 9:38 pm on Thursday, July 16th, changing a reference to Dredd v. Scott to Dredd Scott v. Sandford, the case to which Jill meant to refer.

there’s one thing that this week’s Senate confirmation hearings
made clear, it’s that Judge Sotomayor is not just a great mind, but
a patient and generous teacher.  Surrounded by senators who seemed
primarily concerned with topping each other in condescension, Sotomayor
responded with respect, nuance and a solid grounding in the law –
to the point where the hearings sometimes felt like a high school civics
class, with Sotomayor explaining the fundamentals of our legal system. 
The biggest surprises of the hearings so far haven’t come from Sotomayor
herself, but from the ignorance and arrogance shown by some members
of the GOP.  And the biggest pay-off won’t just be from Sotomayor’s
confirmation – although that will certainly happen – but from the
GOP’s torching of any goodwill it hasn’t already set aflame with
women and racial minorities. 

the hearings, Sotomayor faced down Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama senator
with a notoriously racially troubled past.  Sessions sat in Sotomayor’s
seat when Ronald Regan nominated him for a federal judgeship. 
The Senate Judiciary Committee killed his nomination after it came to
light that he joked that he used to think the Ku Klux Klan wasn’t
so bad until he found out some of them smoked marijuana, and he believed
the NAACP and the ACLU to be "un-American and "Communist-inspired"
– his biggest grievance with the groups being that they "forced"
civil rights down our collective throats.  Watching Sotomayor respond
to Sessions’ sneering questions with insightful and polite answers
was simultaneously infuriating and inspiring – I’m not sure I could
have been nearly as composed, but she certainly put to rest any concerns
about her "temperament."   

at least, she put those concerns to rest in the minds of reasonable
people.  Sen. Lindsey Graham wasn’t satisfied, and had the nerve to
read off several anonymous and unattributed statements about Sotomayor’s
"temperament problem." His point was that Sotomayor is
too mean and too harsh in her questioning to be a good judge – a concern
rarely raised with aggressive male judges like Antonin Scalia. 
But instead of making her look unreasonable or "temperamental" (what
is she, a racehorse?), he succeeded only in making himself look like
a bully and a fool, targeting her personality instead of her record.
Like many others in the GOP, he threw in some references to her "Wise
Latina" comment for good measure – after all, someone in the studio
audience may not be aware that she’s not white.   

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it only went downhill on Wednesday.  Abortion-related queries predictably
came up on both days, but were driven home with staunch anti-choice Sen. Tom Coburn’s line of questioning.  After asking her about
the current state of abortion laws in the United States as if he didn’t
know – there’s that condescension again – Coburn took the hearings
as an opportunity to lecture her, saying, "I don’t expect you to
answer this, but I do expect you to pay attention to it as you contemplate
these big issues," before fixating on viability and fetal heartbeats.   

you picture Sen. Coburn rhetorically shaking his finger like that at
Scalia or Chief Justice Roberts? 

that wasn’t enough, Coburn then told Sotomayor, "You’ll have lots
of ‘splainin’ to do" in a back-and-forth about the Second Amendment
and self-defense.  Only in our "post-racial" era can old white
men criticize a highly-educated, accomplished Latina jurist for being
"racist" and not adequately colorblind, accuse her of being an affirmative
action pick
, and then throw
a Ricky Ricardo quote at her.  

perhaps the most offensive aspect of the hearings was some of the senators’
blatant misrepresentations and feigned ignorance of the law.  Senator
Coburn’s request that Sotomayor explain the status of abortion rights
was just the tip of the iceberg.  In his line of questioning on
Wednesday, Sen. Orrin Hatch asked Sotomayor her opinion on judges "reading
rights into the Constitution."  Certainly Sen. Hatch is familiar
with the Ninth Amendment, which states simply that "The
enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed
to deny or disparage others retained by the people" – in other words,
just because a right isn’t explicitly delineated in the Constitution
doesn’t mean that the government is free to violate it.  Even
more egregious was Sen. Graham’s contention that the Puerto Rican
Legal Defense Fund, on whose board Sotomayor sat, argued in a brief
that refusing to use taxpayer funds for abortion is akin to slavery. 
In fact, PRLDEF used the infamous Dredd Scott v. Sanford case to make
the point that the anti-abortion law in question treated poor women
as less than citizens under the law – the same mistake notoriously
made in Dredd

it all, though, Sotomayor remained poised and calm, answering the questions
thoughtfully and thoroughly – much the same way she writes her opinions. 
Her knowledge of the law, her preparation and her presentation were
absolute perfection – and serve as another example of a woman of color
having to do things twice as well as everyone else in order to succeed
(and she still has her intelligence, temperament and aptitude questioned).   

is almost no doubt that she will be confirmed.  What remains to
be seen is just how much damage these hearings will do to an already
battered Republican Party.  If Democrats are smart, they will replay
these clips ad nauseum, and let all of America – and not just the
nerds who streamed CSPAN at work – see just how Republicans act when
they sit face-to-face with a woman of color (especially one whose accomplishments
trump their own and may in their eyes be a little too big for her britches). 
I wonder what the female, non-white or even rudimentarily racially aware
GOP constituents will think when they see the condescension and disdain
heaped upon a woman who graciously responds with nothing but patience
and tolerance.   

suspect the senators will have some "splainin" to do. 

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