Hearings Through the Looking Glass

The price of being a candid Latina judge.

US Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor

“I am a Brooklynite, born and bred—a first-generation American on my father’s side, barely second-generation on my mother’s.”

—Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

I am who I am in the first place because of my parents . . . My father was brought to this country as an infant. . . He grew up in poverty. Although he graduated at the top of his high school class, he had no money for college. . . in the midst of the Depression, he found that teaching jobs for Italian Americans were not easy to come by, and had to find other work . . .”

—Justice Samuel Alito

These two statements—the first by then-nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993 and the second by then-nominee Samuel Alito in 2006—are typical of opening statements of modern Supreme Court nominees at their confirmation hearings. These personal stories are meant to honor the struggle of their parents, but more importantly they’re designed to frame the nominee (almost always an Ivy League-educated sitting federal appeals court judge) as a real person with a background that reflects two of the most prized features of a great American story: adversity and success. Nominees attempt to show that they are in touch with common American experiences and people—that they understand the struggles of the poor, of immigrants and minorities.

Even then-nominee John Roberts talked about working at a mill during the summers in his childhood. (This attempt at working-class identification was tempered by the revelation that the mill was owned by his father.) But when a Supreme Court nominee is a person of color, this standard framing device becomes the central story.

It hardly matters whether it comes from Pinpoint, Ga. or the Bronx, N.Y.; a transcendent family story about race infuses every part of the minority nominee’s confirmation process. In the case of Justice Thomas, the nominee and his supporters used “the Pinpoint strategy” to convince the public that Thomas, a stalwart conservative member of the Reagan administration, would be sympathetic to the plight of racial minorities and the poor. It turned out not to be true, but Thomas’ story of his hard-scrabble upbringing and his assurances that when he saw black prisoners he thought “there but for the grace of God go I,” convinced enough people (especially before the devastating Anita Hill sexual harassment revelations), that Thomas would “remember where he came from.”

For Judge Sonia Sotomayor, her personal story is offered to provide historic weight to her nomination and to give Americans a sense of, well, hope and change. It’s a genuinely impressive story. More so because her struggles appear to have made Judge Sotomayor more open, more giving and more committed to giving back to the community from which she comes, rather than embittered and rigid like Justice Thomas.

So watching Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee line up to paint Judge Sotomayor as prejudiced, truly feels like one of those surreal moments that increasingly characterize public discussions about race in 21st-century America.