Biography and Judicial Philosophy: Media Coverage of Sonia Sotomayor

Curator's Note

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.



Thanks for kicking us off this week, Alison, with your insightful post! The contrast between Sotomayor and Thomas that you mention is especially interesting in regard to the secrecy vs. disclosure discourse that will be raised a few times this week. Sotomayor has, as you point out, been incredibly visible since her confirmation whereas Thomas is notoriously reserved--to the point that half a sentence he uttered was caught on tape made the news. I wonder if Sotomayor is indicative of a new approach to serving on the Court, with justices discussing their life and job, at least vaguely, while on the bench as opposed to only appearing so openly following retirement (as Sandra Day O'Connor has done recently ).

Thanks Charlotte. I also find the way visibility functions in relation to the court very interesting--particularly what materials the news media uses to analyze Justices' constitutional philosophies and predict their decisions. I believe that for Thomas, who is notoriously reticent on the bench the media gravitates even more dramatically towards referencing his personal life. It's interesting that his first statement in 7 years was a quip about Yale, his former Alma Mater, and a site he has criticized repeatedly. It seems that in lieu of a clear judicial philosophy the media will draw on biographical details, and the politics of the appointing party in order to better understand a justice. What I think is interesting about Sotomayor, as you suggest, is her willingness to be candid and speak about both the law and her biographical experience. She seems ready to challenge the assumption that impartiality exists, but sometimes still holds back, as seen in the Colbert clip.

I confess that Sotomayor is the only justice in my lifetime whose personal story I've cared about. She has a compelling biography and a voice. I appreciate Colbert's quip about the "nine faceless white guys." He captures the general impression of the Court. But in truth, the ethnic and gender composition of the Court has not been nine white guys since Thurgood Marshall. The court has, however, largely remained 'faceless,' and I wonder if it is that secretive and hidden aspect of the Court that helps perpetuate its whiteness. I echo Charlotte's thought that maybe Sotomayor is indicative of a new approach. She made her voice known in recent oral arguments about the Voting Rights Act, calling out South Carolina for it's continued racism. Clarence Thomas, as is his custom, did not say a word.

Chad, I totally agree and am curious if this might signal a change in the transparency of the court overall. I am also very interested in the relationship between secrecy and "impartiality." What has particularly captured my attention about Sotomayor is her openness about how life experiences might influence the way you understand and engage with the constitution. Perhaps her candor will encourage new approaches to representing and discussing the judicial decision making process the ultimately grant new kinds of access and understanding.

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