Since Sonia Sotomayor’s 2009 appointment to the Supreme Court, the news-media has frequently identified her ethnicity, and hard-won journey to Washington DC, as the basis for her temperament and judicial philosophy. During the nomination process, President Obama had asserted the importance of confirming the nation’s first Latina justice and foretold that Sotomayor’s appointment would be another step towards “equal justice under law."
The Justice’s childhood in the Bronx has attracted heightened media attention during recent months with the publication of her deeply personal memoir My Beloved World. As part of the book’s publicity tour Sotomayor visited The Colbert Report where host Stephen Colbert feigned ignorance of the volume’s popularity and asked: “Why do we need to know this much about Supreme Court justices?”
Of course the answer to Colbert’s query was clear in the media coverage of the book, particularly television interviews that pressed the Justice about affirmative action. With the high-profile affirmative action case, Fisher v. University of Texas pending, a decision that will affirm or diminish the precedent established by Grutter v. Bollinger, Sotomayor’s gender, ethnicity and experiences with affirmative action provide the media with tools to simplify and personify the tangles of judicial precedent.
Such tactics were particularly evident in 60 Minutes Overtime coverage that contrasted Sotomayor to fellow justice Clarence Thomas, noting: “He resents affirmative action. She embraces affirmative action. These two people who should have so much in common suddenly become the yin and yang of this experience." Such rhetoric assumes direct connections between race, personal experience and judicial philosophy.
For her part Sotomayor proudly acknowledges the role her upbringing played in defining her professional perspective, despite accusations from the right of partiality and reverse racism. The justice encountered particularly pointed wrath regarding her 2002 statement that: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.” What remains particularly resonant about this statement is how the acknowledgement of a Latina perspective simultaneously reveals the existence of a specific perspective afforded by whiteness and masculinity. As Stephen Colbert noted: “It used to be nine faceless white guys up there,” a whiteness that Sotomayor deliberately foregrounds.