Jay Newton-Small, “GOP Grilling of Sotomayor: No Hit with Hispanic Voters,” Time Magazine, Jul. 16, 2009
By the third morning of Sonia Sotomayor's hearings to be confirmed to the Supreme Court, the atmosphere in the room was practically jovial. Despite the best efforts of some Republicans to spark a confrontation on hot-button issues like abortion, gun rights or her general approach to judging, Sotomayor had largely steered clear of any trouble, and the process had taken on an air of inevitability. But that didn't mean the grilling of a Latina woman by a panel made up mostly of white men didn't produce its share of uncomfortable moments. One such moment occurred the morning of July 15, when the appellate judge was being questioned by Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican. In the middle of an exchange on gun control, Sotomayor tried to illustrate the reach of New York gun laws by joking about running home to get a gun in self-defense. "If I go home, get a gun, come back and shoot you, that may not be legal under New York law because you would have alternative ways to defend ..."
"You'll have lots of 'splainin' to do," Coburn interrupted, invoking a phrase familiar to fans of the 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy, on which Lucy's long-suffering husband Ricky Ricardo (Cuban-American Desi Arnaz in real life) would often utter the refrain in exasperation at his zany wife's antics. Sotomayor paused awkwardly before nervously agreeing with a chuckle, "I'd be in a lot of trouble then."
For a Republican Party that has already lost much of its standing with the country's Hispanic population, the entire Sotomayor nomination has spelled trouble. Ever since President Barack Obama announced his choice to replace David Souter on the nation's highest court, the GOP has had to tread lightly in appealing to its conservative base by fighting the nomination of the first Hispanic American to the bench. It hasn't helped matters that one of their major lines of attack against Sotomayor seems borne out of ethnic stereotypes — the contention that she is a temperamental person unable to resist her own passions and biases in deciding cases. Latinos are the fastest-growing demographic in America and often the deciding bloc in swing states like Florida, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. After the Republicans' anti-immigration-reform stance alienated Hispanic voters, they became a key ingredient in Obama's victory, with the Democrat winning two-thirds of their votes nationwide. And now, with Latin-American groups across the country paying close attention to the hearings, seemingly innocent, offhand quips like Coburn's aren't helping the GOP's case.
"It was insensitive," says Representative Charlie Gonzalez, a Texas Democrat who chairs the Hispanic Caucus Civil Rights Task Force. "It probably demonstrates where the Republican Party is today. They just don't get it. This is a serious issue for many members of the Latino community. Growing up, you're very conscious of the mispronunciation of words. Sometimes it was also a subject of humor, but I think Dr. Coburn doesn't understand the stereotyping he was engaging in."
Lillian Rodriguez, president of the Hispanic Federation, an organization that builds Latino institutions in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, says she understood that the remark was meant in jest, "but you've got to be very careful in those kinds of characterizations. It sends a message that that's the way you see us: in a time capsule of a 1950s sitcom. We've progressed a long way since then."
Coburn's poor attempt at humor was all the more notable because the committee's seven Republicans have thus far kept their questioning relatively respectful, something that hasn't gone unnoticed by Democrats. "During the course of this nomination, there have been some unfortunate comments, including outrageous charges of racism made about you on radio and television," Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, the panel's chairman, told Sotomayor on July 14. "One person referred to you as being the equivalent of the head of the Ku Klux Klan. Another leader in the other party referred to you as — as being a bigot. And to the credit of the Republican Senators, they have not repeated those charges." Leahy was referring to jibes made by former Republican Representative Tom Tancredo and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich soon after Obama named Sotomayor. Gingrich later apologized for his comments.
One of the main focuses of Republican concern has been a comment Sotomayor made at least five times in speeches since the 1990s, that she hoped a "wise Latina woman, with the richness of her experiences, would more often than not reach a better conclusion" than a white male. Sotomayor has said repeatedly before the committee that she regrets her choice of words and that in context they were meant to illustrate how a judge must always be vigilant against bias. "The point's been made, and she's pulled back on those comments," says John Ullyot, a GOP strategist who has worked on judicial nominations in the past. "There's no point in pressing it further, especially when we're trying to reach out to Latino voters."
Coburn spokesman John Hart seems taken aback that anyone would have been upset by the Ricky Ricardo exchange. "Judge Sotomayor was, in a lighthearted manner, discussing shooting Dr. Coburn with a gun in the context of a serious discussion about the right to self-defense and the Second Amendment," Hart says. "If Judge Sotomayor was offended by Dr. Coburn's lighthearted response, I'm sure Dr. Coburn will apologize to her."
But what Republican Senators consider to be courteous questioning of a nominee may not be taken that way by a population unaccustomed to the inside-the-Beltway banter of the Senate. "This may come as a surprise, [what Latinos] see is an unfair attack," says Cesar A. Pareles, president of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, an organization whose board Sotomayor used to sit on, which itself was pilloried as a far-left organization by Republican Lindsey Graham on Tuesday. "Many Latinos will not understand that this is just typical politics. They will take it much more personally and perceive racial animosity directed toward the Hispanic community."
Coburn's exchange wasn't the only one of the hearings that has struck many observers, and not just Hispanic Americans, as offensive. Many viewed Graham's recounting of certain anonymous lawyers' criticisms of Sotomayor as a hotheaded bully as patronizing, especially when he suggested the judge take the time to reflect on the characterizations of her style on the bench if she ends up being confirmed to the Supreme Court. And Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions only dug a deeper hole for his party on Tuesday, when he stressed that Sotomayor, in voting against a full circuit review of the controversial ruling in the New Haven firefighters' discrimination case, had gone against another judge of "Puerto Rican ancestry."
The repetitive nature of the hearings just added salt to the wound. "They have been ignoring the fact that her 17-year judicial record demonstrates that she has never favored any one group or political ideal," says Estuardo Rodriguez, director of Hispanics for a Fair Judiciary. "One Republican Senator after another has repeated this questioning that is demeaning not only to the Latino community but to women by suggesting that she cannot serve the Supreme Court well because she has a Hispanic heritage."
Still, all in all, the hearings have been notably free of fireworks, especially when compared with past hostile standoffs for such nominees as Clarence Thomas and Robert Bork. Assuming that Sotomayor is confirmed, people aren't likely to remember Coburn's Ricky Ricardo moment or a few tough questions — which Senators say is their duty to ask. "The final impact is yet to be determined. The final vote will have huge political implications," says Federico Peña, a former Secretary of Energy under Bill Clinton. "At the end of the day, if there's a lot of Republicans that vote against her, well, in some ways you're voting for the whole family or against the whole family."
— With reporting by Sophia Yan / Washington