President Barack Obama has nominated Second Circuit Federal Appeals Court justice Sonia Sotomayor as his pick for the Supreme Court. Swapping out his previous formulation, that a potential justice ought to embrace “empathy,” Obama stressed “experience” in his assessment of what was needed on the Court:

It is experience that can give a person a common touch, and a sense of compassion, a sense of how the world works and how ordinary people live, that is why it is necessary ingredient in the kind of justice we need on the Supreme Court.

These credentials are indeed important. (SCOTUSBLOG has more on Sotomayor’s professional experience.) But the nominee's compelling American story—Bronx-bred, Latina, double-Ivy grad, diabetic—certainly seems like an incentive to focus on the personal over the judicial. And lots of chatter has centered upon the politics behind this move and its significance for both Hispanics and women in America. But emphasizing these characteristics has obvious pitfalls as well—not least the risk of pigeonholing the highly decorated academic and judicial record of Sotomayor, or inviting simple smears focusing on her personal life.

Already, commentators and legal writers have attacked the nominee’s intellect, and POLITICO has referred to her in careless shorthand as a “Latina single mother.” From Mike Allen and Jonathan Martin:

[T]he fact that Sotomayor is a Latina could also present a political challenge for Republicans. Senators from the GOP, which has suffered from an internal rift over immigration issues and problem-plagued efforts to reach out to Hispanics, will have to decide how directly and sharply they want to attack a Latina single mother whose confirmation to the court is virtually certain.

Ouch. Josh Marshall helpfully points out at TPM that Sotomayor is childless. Look for much more of this dismissiveness, along gender, class and racial lines, in the coming weeks.


Now, this doesn’t mean that Obama can’t win a fight about whether, as he said Tuesday, “No dream is beyond reach in the United States”—his own election as president is a fine rebuttal to any naysayers. But while Obama did a good job of flying just above the threat of outright racial mudfights during the 2008 campaign, Sotomayor has much less of a defined brand. And as the first weeks of discussion have shown, the White House must at all costs avoid the trap of defending identity politics—when both Sotomayor and Obama should concentrate on defending the Constitution.


UPDATE: Via Ben Smith, I see that Mike Huckabee, Fox News commentator and former GOP presidential candidate, has released
a statement against Sotomayor's candidacy calling her "Maria Sotomayor."


Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.