January 18, 2010 1:38PM

Racial Politics and the Supreme Court

Lauren Collins has a long and interesting profile of Justice Sonia Sotomayor in the January 11 New Yorker. It's full of heartwarming stories about her hard-working parents, her dedication to education, her warmth to friends and law clerks, and so on. Though it does include this vignette that seems to corroborate controversial claims that she was "a bully on the bench":

In early December, during oral arguments for United Student Aid Funds Inc. v. Espinosa, Sotomayor cut off a lawyer as he attempted to answer a question posed by Justice Ginsburg. “Counsel, may I interrupt for just one moment, because I—there is something needling at me that I do need an answer to,” Sotomayor said. According to Law.com, which reported on the incident in a story headlined “Sotomayor Collides with Ginsburg During Questioning,” Justice Stephen Breyer turned to Sotomayor as though to intervene. Before he could, Ginsburg shot back, “And I’d like him to answer the question that I asked him first.”

But what really struck me in the article, and what appears to be new reporting, was this discussion of the explicitly racial politics that led up to her nomination. Maybe I'm just naive, and certainly I wasn't under the impression that race, religion, gender, and other such factors are absent in the selection of our nine most trusted judges. But this really seems like the way you put together a balanced ticket in a political campaign, not the way you choose a wise justice:

Latino leaders began laying the groundwork for a Sotomayor nomination almost as soon as President Obama was elected. During the Administrations of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Latino groups had repeatedly failed to coalesce around a candidate. This time, they were determined to wield their influence as a bloc. In January, Nydia Velázquez, the Democratic congresswoman from New York’s Twelfth District, was sworn in as the head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. She asked Sotomayor, a longtime friend, to come to Washington to administer the oath—and to insure that she was fresh in the mind of every Hispanic member of Congress.

At a Cinco de Mayo party at the White House, Velázquez and Serrano, who is of Puerto Rican descent, each buttonholed Obama.

“Mr. President, she’s a very qualified person, and it would be a historic nomination,” Serrano said.

Velázquez gripped Obama by both hands. “Mr. President, you have an opportunity, here in your hands, to shape the United States Supreme Court for years to come.”

Obama whispered into Velázquez’s ear and smiled. “I know—there’s a Puerto Rican woman.”

Justice David Souter announced his resignation on May 1st. Not long afterward, the Hispanic Caucus convened to formally endorse a candidate. The meeting was long and contentious. The Mexican-Americans did not have a superior candidate. The Puerto Ricans did not have the numbers. After hours of debate, Ed Pastor, a Mexican-American congressman from Arizona, made a motion: “The best candidate is Sonia Sotomayor, and we should take a vote right here.” The meeting ended with a unanimous vote for Sotomayor.

Latino leaders also lobbied their black counterparts to the cause. “The concern of some people, and I believe some in the White House, was with what political capital they could use in nominating a Latina in terms of the black community, who feel that Clarence Thomas doesn’t represent them,” Velázquez said. On the House floor, Velázquez approached the North Carolina representative Mel Watt, who serves on the House Judiciary Committee, and who formerly chaired the Congressional Black Caucus. A few days later, Watt called Velázquez on a Saturday. “Nydia, I placed a call to the White House,” he said. “I said, ‘If there’s not a black candidate that makes the short list, we will be supportive of Sonia Sotomayor.’ ”

I guess Sotomayor knows the score better than I do. After her confirmation she said (to Collins, presumably, as this quotation is not otherwise in Nexis):

"Although we all wish to believe that appointments are only the product of merit, the harsh reality is that the support of community groups is critical to insuring that meritorious candidates are not overlooked or victimized in the appointment process,” she said.

Politics ain't beanbag, but I'd like to think that nominations of judges are just a little more elevated than porkbarrel politics and the scramble for a piece of the pie.