THE NATION has convened a great roundtable of legal thinkers, from Dahlia Lithwick to Lani Guinier, musing on the big question on Barack Obama's mind: Whom to nominate for the Supreme Court? The always-contentious deliberations have taken on even more heightened importance because this is the first Democratic court appointment in 15 years. Will the pick, liberals wonder, firmly shift the ideological balance on the court and lay the groundwork for a compelling, progressive form of Constitutional scholarship? The writers toss out many names—legal scholar Ronald Dworkin, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, John Echohawk, a prominent Pawnee defense attorney.

One of the most frequently mentioned names on Obama's shortlist is Sonia Sotomayor, a federal judge on the Second Circuit court of appeals who has been the victim of some harsh and seemingly premature criticism, that many say smacked of sexism and racism. We also chatted about the virtues and the pitfalls of identity politics on The Confab this week—but I think Ian Haney Lopez has written a particularly sharp and important take on the Sotomayor skirmish:

[I]dentity does matter—if indirectly. Yes, the judicial apotheosis of someone affiliated with disfavored groups would help repudiate negative stereotypes (it turns out, Latinas can do more than clean houses). True, such ascension would add to the law's legitimacy (further burnishing the belief in the Americano Dream). All fair enough. But at stake is a seat on the Supreme Court; far and away the most important criterion for selecting among various technically superb candidates must be intellectual and moral vision.

Which is the key reason identity matters. The central point is not to provide diverse role models, and it's certainly not to maximize differences of every stripe. The essential thrust of identity politics is to accord special consideration to race, gender and class (plus sexual orientation and disability)—because these constitute core, persistent, unjust hierarchies. Biography is not intellectual destiny; group membership is not epistemological fate. Nevertheless, ties to the central marginalized identities in American life surely encourage sustained engagement with inequality.

Guinier, author Linda Hirschman and Kevin Johnson of UC Davis Law School all have smart takes as well. So study up! Obama's choice for the court will matter for decades to come.


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