As the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor get under way this week on Capitol Hill, some members of the Senate have a major decision to make about their identity and their future.
Will they continue to advance divisive politics rooted in America’s sad history of racism and exclusion? Or can they rise to meet the challenges of 21st-century, multicultural America with dignity and honor?
The question is not just rhetorical: I ask out of genuine concern that our democratic system may be in danger of crumbling under the weight of ideologically extremist ineptitude. In particular, the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice is a vital step in the constitutionally mandated process of advise and consent. It is a serious undertaking that must be conducted with integrity, transparency, intellectual rigor and alacrity.
But to our dismay, on the eve of the hearings for Sotomayor, we witnessed a spectacle of ideological posturing and outrageous accusations that threatened to poison the proceedings before they even began. Worse, these catcalls over Judge Sotomayor—who, if confirmed, would become the first Latino woman to serve on the Supreme Court—carried a decidedly racist overtone.
Leading the cacophony that has arisen over Sotomayor’s ethnicity is Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III of Alabama, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee. With a 23-year track record of forcing racial wedges into public spaces, Sessions has apparently not learned anything constructive from recent political shifts in Congress. Remarkably, even while watching his own party’s once mighty base shrink to voters located in a handful of Southern states, Sessions is self-destructively determined to further alienate himself and others who support his agenda from the growing multiethnic population in the United States. This looming “New Majority” includes increasing numbers of Latinos. As Sotomayor’s back story illustrates, the millions of Latinos who will be a significant part of this nation’s future are overwhelmingly those who work, pay taxes, raise children—and vote.
Sessions’ recent comments cast aspersions on Sotomayor’s qualifications, despite clear evidence that as an appellate court judge, she arrives at her Supreme Court nomination hearings with more federal judicial experience than any other nominee in the past 70 years.
And more troubling: Beneath Sen. Sessions’ overt attacks is none-too-subtle racial language designed to stir up fearmongering of the sort that fatally wounded the immigration bill in 2007.
On July 6, Sessions sparked a tidal wave of racist hate speech in the blogosphere and on national airwaves by accusing Sotomayor of engaging in racially biased advocacy during the dozen years she served on the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. The nonprofit organization provides underserved citizens the opportunity to seek redress against exploitive workplace practices and discriminatory policies.
But Sessions told Fox News that he wanted to know if Sotomayor’s work on behalf of group had “infected” her subsequent decision, along with two appellate court colleagues, in favor of the city of New Haven in its reverse-discrimination firefighter examination case.
It is likely that the recent Supreme Court decision overturning the Court of Appeals ruling in that case will come up for debate at the confirmation hearings, and Sessions is not alone in viewing Sotomayor’s position as fair game for questioning. But why is Sessions attempting to distract from the core business at hand—evaluating Sotomayor’s overall judicial track record? What can he hope to gain with his attacks on her before the hearings even begin?
His choice of the word “infected” was a clear attempt to position Sotomayor as an unwelcomed, possibly malignant, presence on our American body politic. We’ve seen this tactic before from Sessions. If it were his only gaffe, the outburst might be viewed a poor choice of words. But Sessions’ record of racially inflammatory comments stretches back too far to not recognize ill-intent: He once called a fully-grown black man who worked as an aide a “boy.” During his years as a federal prosecutor in Alabama, Sessions said he believed the 1964 Voting Rights Act had been an “intrusive” piece of legislation. My own organization has received the blunt end of his peculiarly retrograde comments: Sessions told Justice Department lawyers in Alabama that he viewed the NAACP as “un-American” and that our work was “Communist-inspired.”
Sessions does no favor to the Republican Party with his charged rhetoric. It reminds people of an ignominious past; it reminds us of days when this country was much more pessimistic about race relations; and it reminds people of a day when the Republican Party made itself the home for politicians with extreme racial sentiments.
Judge Sotomayor has a right to enter the hearings with all the respect and goodwill accorded to other Supreme Court nominees, and she also has a right to a process that has legitimacy and integrity. We hope that the Judiciary Committee members don’t fall prey to divisive tactics and that they move the Sotomayor nomination to the Senate floor for full, well-deserved confirmation.
Benjamin Todd Jealous is the new president and CEO of the NAACP, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this week (July 11-16).