The real story of the Sotomayor hearings


The news media have been so fixated on the question of whether Sonia Sotomayor's much-distorted "wise Latina" comment was racist, they have missed the real story of this week's confirmation hearings: a pattern of inappropriate comments and double-standards that highlight the biases of her critics.

The news media have been so fixated on the question of whether Sonia Sotomayor's much-distorted "wise Latina" comment was racist, they have missed the real story of this week's confirmation hearings: a pattern of inappropriate comments and double standards that highlight the biases of her critics.

Let's start with the double standard. Countless news reports have -- following the lead of a host of conservatives -- suggested that Sotomayor's vote in the Ricci case, combined with her comments about the effect of background and personal experiences on judicial decision-making, shows that she cannot be impartial. Some have gone so far as to suggest Sotomayor's position on the Ricci case was racist.

Justice Samuel Alito -- a white male of Italian-American ethnicity -- made a comment very similar to Sotomayor's during his confirmation hearings, saying that his ethnicity plays a role in his thinking when he hears cases, particularly discrimination cases. Neither the conservatives who now attack Sotomayor's comments nor the media who go along with the fiction that her comments are remarkable complained about Alito's comments.

But that's not all. The plaintiff in the Ricci case is Frank Ricci, an Italian-American firefighter. Justice Alito, who voted in favor of Ricci, has said that his Italian-American heritage plays a role in his thinking when he hears discrimination cases. Yet reporters ignore that fact when they report on conservative allegations that Sotomayor's background, rather than her reading in the law, determined her vote. Nor do they question why the Republican senators who are so concerned about Sotomayor's Ricci vote are silent on the question of whether Alito's ethnicity played a role in his vote.

That's a clear double standard: A white man who rules in favor of a white man is presumed to have done so based on a neutral reading of the law -- even though he has previously said his ethnicity plays a role in his judicial thinking -- while a Latina is presumed to be unduly influenced by her background.

Then there's Sen. Jeff Sessions' bizarre suggestion that because Sotomayor is of Puerto Rican descent, she should have voted with another 2nd Circuit judge of the same background: "Had you voted with Judge [Jose] Cabranes, himself of Puerto Rican ancestry, had you voted with him, you could've changed that case."

What does Cabranes' "Puerto Rican ancestry" have to do with anything?

The news media didn't care, even though the comment came from a senator whose own judicial nomination was scuttled amidst a controversy over his history of racially charged comments. MSNBC's Rachel Maddow brought up Sessions' strange reference to Cabranes' "Puerto Rican ancestry." So did her colleague Ed Schultz -- and on Schultz's show, former Republican congresswoman Susan Molinari agreed "the ancestry of anyone making that decision isn't really pertinent."

But that was it. Save a passing mention in a Washington Post article, Sessions' comment is nowhere to be found in news reports available on Nexis.

Finally, there's Sen. Lindsey Graham's overt condescension and his use of what have been described as "sexist" anonymous quotes about Sotomayor.

Even while reporting Graham's question about Sotomayor's temperament based on anonymous quotes about her (a question that came at the end of a day in which Sotomayor had responded to a barrage of hostile GOP questioning without once responding in anger), ABC and NBC neglected to mention that Sotomayor's Court of Appeals colleague, Judge Guido Calabresi, has called the criticism of her temperament "sexist, plain and simple."

Several news accounts referred to the Republicans' questioning of Sotomayor as "respectful" and "cordial," overlooking Graham's patronizing comments, including his statement -- after reading the anonymous quotes -- that "maybe these hearings are time for self-reflection." Even Chris Matthews -- himself no stranger to insulting treatment of women and minorities, including Sotomayor -- found Graham's comments "condescending." But most news reports overlooked this aspect of the hearings.

Washington Post reporter Chris Cillizza even included Graham on his list of "winners," praising his "low-key delivery" that proved he is "one of the best questioners/smart legal minds in the Senate." Cillizza didn't mention Graham's condescension -- and didn't mention Sessions' comment about Judge Cabranes' ancestry, either. (Through two days of questioning, Cillizza couldn't think of a single Republican to include among the hearings' "losers," though he found space for four Democrats, none of whom have been accused of making condescending or racially tinged comments.)

Graham began the Sotomayor hearings by noting that, barring a "meltdown," she will be confirmed. Such a meltdown hasn't happened. Like most recent Supreme Court nominees, Sotomayor's comments have been fairly bland and uncontroversial. All the more reason why the media should pay attention to the real story of the week: the double standards and condescending treatment of Sotomayor, by conservatives and by many reporters.

Supreme Court Nominations, Sotomayor Nomination
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