January 18, 2010

Racial Politics and the Supreme Court

A piece in the New Yorker on Justice Sotomayor details how her path to the nomination began, and, shocker!, race played a predominant factor in her nomination.
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.’ ”

Apparently this was not lost on Justice Sotomayor who, following her confirmation, said, “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."