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Sotomayor’s surprise

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Esther Cepeda
April 29, 2012
— When Sonia Sotomayor made history in 2009 by becoming the first Latina named to the Supreme Court, Hispanics were overjoyed.

Her story was a deeply satisfying one about the Bronx-bred daughter of Puerto Rican parents who, despite coming from humble means, made it to the big leagues of justice.


At that time, a little over two years after the last serious attempt at comprehensive bipartisan immigration law reform failed in the Senate, seeing a woman of the same ethnic group as millions of illegal immigrants who were being villainized gave some Hispanics a special feeling of connection to the American judicial process.


Wednesday, as news was breaking about how the court might be leaning after the Obama administration presented its oral arguments in favor of striking down Arizona’s “papers, please” immigration law, you had to wonder whether the feelings were still so special.


Sotomayor was prominently featured in news stories topped by headlines describing the court as “sympathetic” and “receptive” to parts of the Arizona law, and “skeptical” of the Obama administration’s arguments against it.


Judging from the lack of Hispanic comment on social media concerning Sotomayor’s pointed questions to Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr.—from those who were sure she’d bring a diverse (read: liberal Hispanic) viewpoint to the court—I’d say the feelings were not so special.


Just scanning Twitter, you could see that it was primarily conservatives who were tweeting about Sotomayor. And in positive terms.


“Even Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor Shredded the Government’s Case Against Arizona’s Immigration Law” read a widely retweeted headline. “When even Sotomayor turns against you, that’s a good indicator it’s time to throw in the towel,” said a tweet directed at the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization contesting the Arizona legislation.


A comment Sotomayor directed at Verrilli—“You can see (your argument is) not selling very well”—was a particularly popular retweet.


What a fascinating turn of events.


When President Obama announced Sotomayor as his pick for the bench, he said, “When Sonia Sotomayor ascends those marble steps to assume her seat on the highest court of the land, America will have taken another important step towards realizing the ideal that is etched above its entrance: Equal justice under the law.” Considering that this case has turned on concerns over whether Arizona’s legislation would legalize racial profiling—though the Obama administration was arguing solely on whether the state is overreaching on the federal government’s authority over immigration’s rules—I’d give anything to know what Obama’s reaction was to her no-nonsense questions.


Really, anyone who accepted that Sotomayor was a super-qualified nominee who was up for the big job because of her brains and considerable experience should have expected nothing less.


Of course, for far too many, that has never been a realistic expectation. During the run-up to her confirmation, Latino advocacy groups basically blustered that she should get the nod because “it’s our turn” and “we need someone representing us,” while Republicans used Sotomayor’s own words to push the idea that, if appointed, she would defer to a “Latino agenda.” No one knows how the Supreme Court will rule on the question of whether Arizona and other states have the right to enact immigration-related laws, nor how Sotomayor will vote on the matter. And those are only two of the burning questions before us.


Will Sotomayor’s remarks turn off large swaths of Hispanics who might interpret her thorough inquiries as some sort of slight against “her people”? (Some in the Twitterverse went beyond being “very surprised” by her comments and began denouncing her as a “fake liberal” and a “fake House Latina” hours after the court recessed.)


If she eventually does rule in favor of Arizona’s right to report the immigration status of detainees to the federal government, will she become the Latina Clarence Thomas, forever branded a “traitor to her race”? And how would that play during the presidential election campaign?


Or will Republicans finally respect her ability to analyze legal questions from an intellectual—and not a liberal Hispanic—perspective, thereby finally seeing her as a truly “wise Latina”?


We have until June to wonder.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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