Monday, May 11, 2009

"She Has An Inflated Opinion of Herself" Does Not Constitute a Good "Case"

Jeffrey Rosen, writing in The New Republic, recently attempted to make a case against possible Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. I say "attempted" here only because it wasn't actually much of a case.

He first acknowledges that Sotomayor, who was raised by a single mother in the Bronx, attended Princeton and then Yale Law School and that her "former clerks sing her praises as a demanding but thoughtful boss whose personal experiences have given her a commitment to legal fairness." Then, he interviews and includes quotations from anonymous former clerks of other judges and former prosecutors who claim that she's "not that smart and kind of a bully on the bench," "she has an inflated opinion of herself, and is domineering during oral arguments," and one of them backhandedly compliments that "she commands attention, she's clearly in charge, she speaks her mind, she's funny, she's voluble, and she has ownership over the role in a very positive way. She's a fine Second Circuit judge--maybe not the smartest ever, but how often are Supreme Court nominees the smartest ever?" The bulk of Rosen's case, actually, consists of similar quotations of people accusing Sotomayor of not being all that smart and/or of being sort of... bitchy (let's just come out and say what these folks mean, eh?).

Now, when I first started reading this "case" against Sotomayor I was all ready for a serious analysis of her capabilities. You know, perhaps something useful that would contribute to the public discourse about a very important decision our President was about to make. Yet, after reading Rosen's snarky piece, I quickly ascertained that it more aptly belongs in an US Weekly magazine. Note to Rosen, we're talking about the next Supreme Court Justice, not the next American Idol.

You will notice, after all, that Rosen doesn't actually discuss Sotomayor's opinions, legal reasoning, or any other specific examples of her competence. In fact, he fully admits: "I haven't read enough of Sotomayor's opinions to have a confident sense of them, nor have I talked to enough of Sotomayor's detractors and supporters, to get a fully balanced picture of her strengths." But hey, why stop a little anonymous workplace gossip from pretty much smearing the reputation of a sitting federal judge? For the record though, a substantial majority of the American Bar Association's members, which uses actual standards to evaluate judicial candidates, ranked Sotomayor as "Well Qualified" back when Clinton nominated her for her current post in 1997.

The thing about this "case" against Sotomayor, who is also of Puerto Rican descent, is that I highly doubt we'd be having this conversation were she a white guy. For one, white guys are usually deemed competent until proven otherwise. Women and people of color are not. As a woman, I know for a fact that, at first, people have taken me less seriously than some of my male colleagues. To some people, when a woman enters a room with a man in a professional setting, she is some sort of assistant to the man and never the Real Professional. But I also know that, because I'm white, people don't regularly question my IQ or wonder whether the only reason I made it through law school was because I was some sort of "affirmative action case." To be a woman of color is to have two marks of perceived incompetence. And, I really think that's what's going on with Rosen's piece here. If Sotomayor were a white guy with the same credentials, the conversation wouldn't be about whether she was competent or not, it would be about her position on abortion, gun rights, gay rights, and a myriad of other issues. It would be about whether her opinions were sound and how she tended to interpret the Constitution, not what anonymous former clerks of other judges thought about her.

That's why I basically see this piece as the expression of underlying anxieties about women and people of color holding important, powerful positions. Liberals and progressives are not immune from perceiving women and minorities as incompetent because no matter how politically-sensitive a person is, we are all products of a sexist and racist society. For instance, I also find it interesting that (a) people expressed that Sotomayor was a little power-trippy with her position and (b) that Rosen found such a critique relevant enough to publish in his piece. "Judicial temperament" is a factor to be considered, sure, but I genuinely wonder if it's possible for a woman of color to hold a position of power without others perceiving her as egocentric, bitchy, or power-trippy? It is still so rare for women of color to be in positions in which other people rise when they walk into the room that I think it would be quite easy to mistake Just Doing One's Job for something much more malignant.

For instance, note one of the snarkier criticisms: "She has an inflated opinion of herself." How so? What does that even mean? What evidence does the anonymous person who said such a thing have for such a statement regarding the innermost cockles of another person's mind? Most of the criticisms ran along those lines and they just seemed so petty, irrelevant and dare I say it, so angry that a woman of color had the audacity to perhaps be proud of her accomplishments and to demand respect.

In conclusion, what irked me most about Rosen's article has to do with its sense of entitlement. Despite her humble beginnings, Sotomayor has worked her way up to a very high position in society. Despite her achievements, someone has deemed it valid to nationally question her competence in the form of snarky, unprofessional, anonymous hearsay. Given that whiteness and maleness are "entitled" to positions of power, I seriously question whether a candidate within that privileged demographic would be "discredited" in such a manner.

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