The judge got ahead the old-fashioned way — so why does she pretend otherwise?
Is Judge Sonia Sotomayor a product of grinding poverty and beneficiary of affirmative action, and now a victim of its unintended consequences? Or has she instead cynically embraced affirmative action and romanticized her past as a way to further her judicial career?
As the confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee continues for Sotomayor, President Barack Obama’s pick for the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, with a lifetime appointment at stake, a review of the evidence shows she has changed her position on affirmative action and fictionalized her past to serve her own purposes.
First, she was never in the target audience affirmative action was designed to help. Second, while in school she vehemently disavowed affirmative action as playing any part in her educational advancement. Third, as her career played out on an increasingly public stage, she rebranded herself as “a perfect affirmative action baby” and an ardent supporter of racial quotas willing to engage in activist judging—and even ethically questionable judging—to advance that agenda.
Sotomayor’s basic résumé is well known. To hear her tell it, she is a product of the “third world” territory of Puerto Rico, raised in public housing projects in the Bronx. She was socially and economically impoverished. She didn’t meet admission test requirements at Princeton University and Yale Law School because of “cultural bias” in the testing. But she was accepted at those schools anyway because of affirmative action. Her success has led her to believe ardently in racial quotas.
After a 12-year legal career as a government prosecutor and later in private corporate practice, Sotomayor was appointed in 1992 to the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York, where she served for six years. She was nominated to the prestigious Second Circuit Court of Appeals in 1997 and to the Supreme Court in May. She owes it all to affirmative action, she says.
A closer look at her background tells another story, however. She was born in the United States. The projects in which she was raised, the Washington Post reported, were “pristine,” virtually crime-free, and racially mixed. A mere 10 percent of the residents were on welfare. The rest had jobs. Sotomayor’s mother was a nurse.
“These were not the projects of idle, stinky elevators, of gang-controlled stairwells where drug deals go down.… Far from dangerous, the projects were viewed as nurturing,” the New York Times wrote. “I never perceived myself as a poor child,” Sotomayor said in an October 1999 housing authority publication, the Post reported.
Sotomayor’s mother valued education above all else, working to pay for elementary and high school education in parochial schools. The family had the only encyclopedia in the Bronx projects, and not just any encyclopedia — the Encyclopedia Britannica. Sotomayor told the New York Daily News, “I was going to college and I was going to become an attorney, and I knew that when I was ten. Ten. That’s no jest.”
Sotomayor and her family may not have had much money, but she was not “socioeconomically poor.” Children who are “socioeconomically poor” do not aspire to be lawyers.
Sotomayor was valedictorian at her grammar school graduation. She went on to pass the entrance examinations to prestigious and academically demanding Cardinal Spellman High School. She graduated as valedictorian there as well. She won a full scholarship to Princeton University, where she struggled at first with writing and vocabulary and lack of knowledge of the classics. She studied long hours to remedy those problems and graduated summa cum laude. She also won the top prize for academics and extracurricular activities and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
She then entered Yale Law School, again on a scholarship. She was an editor of the Yale Law Review and managing editor of the Yale Journal of International Law.
At the time, Sotomayor herself certainly didn’t think she owed her academic success to affirmative action. As her law school graduation neared, Sotomayor interviewed for a job with a prestigious Washington, DC law firm. During a dinner, a partner in the firm suggested the only reason she was at Yale was affirmative action. She filed a complaint with Yale, which convened a faculty-student council. After a hearing, the council voted in Sotomayor’s favor, and the firm was forced to apologize. She refused any further interviews with the firm.
Yet to hear Sotomayor tell it years later, she is “the perfect affirmative action baby.” In a videotape of three female judges discussing diversity, made available to the Senate Judiciary Committee, she said, “My test scores were not comparable to that [sic] of my colleagues at Princeton or Yale.” She attributed this to “cultural biases built into testing and that was one of the motivations for the concept of affirmative action, to try to balance out those effects.” In May 2009 she told WBUR Radio, Boston, “I am always looking over my shoulder, wondering if I measure up.”
Sotomayor’s views on affirmative action are important because this issue is receiving increased scrutiny in the Supreme Court. In 2003 the Court ruled in the University of Michigan cases that race can be used as a factor in university admissions decisions but narrowed the lawful extent. Then-Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that affirmative action should be phased out over the next generation.
More recently, the Court ruled in the New Haven firefighters case last month that the city violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by discarding promotional examination results because too many whites passed. Justice Scalia suggested the Civil Rights Act is unconstitutional on equal protection grounds, an issue not reached by the majority.
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