Sonia Sotomayor: The Answer Rhymes with "Fender"

The question: Why is the media talking about Sonia Sotomayor's tongue or temperament?

In a recent New York Times article, "Sotomayor's Blunt Style Raises Issue of Temperament," journalists Jo Becker and Adam Liptak write that President Obama's Supreme Court nominee "has a blunt and even testy side." Evidence includes the following:

•She's interrupted lawyers arguing before her bench
•She's been known to "pepper" attorneys with "skeptical questions"
•She's grilled lawyers
•She's been called "difficult" and is known for running a "hot bench"

So what?

This gets media play -- in the formidable New York Times, at that -- because Sonia Sotomayor is female. And so easily sex becomes gender.

By attaching human qualities to male and female biological bodies we end up with a gender formula that goes like this:

Gentle, nurturing, emotional = feminine.
Bold, fearless, rational = masculine.

That's gender. And beware to those who dare cross the line. The stakes are high. In this instance at stake is a seat on the highest court in the land.

The thing is, emotion and reason are both qualities we want in a Supreme Court justice. When honed by education, intelligence, and broad experience, these are among the qualities that point to an engaged, thoughtful legal expert capable of performing their duties at the utmost level of competence.

Look at it this way: If Sotomayor were a highly trained surgeon would she be called "too exacting," "picky," or "a clean freak"? We want surgeons who are focused, precise, and hygienic. We want Supreme Court justices who are forceful, assertive, and lucid. We also want surgeons and judges who care. These are not mutually exclusive qualities.

In any case, as Becker and Liptak report, complaints that Sotomayor has been unduly caustic are unfounded. For a time, Judge and former Yale Law School Dean, Guido Calabresi tracked the questions posed by Sotomayor and the 11 other judges of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. "Her behavior was identical," he said. "Some lawyers just don't like to be questioned by a woman," Judge Calabresi added. "It was sexist, plain and simple."

But here's the trick. The failed sleight of hand, if you will. Some detractors oppose Sotomayor's nomination because of her overly direct style, while others like Karl Rove object to her empathy. That Catch-22 has the hallmarks of an ideological battle that can't be won -- because it makes no sense. They might think they have all their bases covered, but conservatives who argue that Sotomayor is too quick, too rational, too emotional, and too empathetic need to check it. This flailing about is logically bizarre and politically undignified.

Critics like Heritage Foundation fellow Robert Alt who freak out that Sotomayor brings her personal experience to the bench are exposing their own selective prejudice. Which part of Sotomayor's history bothers them the most -- her time at Princeton or at Yale? Judge Sotomayor is a graduate of both.

Sotomayor also grew up in the South Bronx, the daughter of a single mother. She was the youngest Manhattan federal judge and she is the first Latina nominee to the Supreme Court. What a rich and variegated life. Like many of us, Sonia Sotomayor has walked in many worlds. Like all of us, Sotomayor is a complex blend of reason and emotion, empathy and detachment. None of us are automatons, detached from our inner landscape and external impacts. We bring these qualities to the table regardless our pursuits. It's just that some of us cop to it, while others take a stance of pretend neutrality.

In a 2001 lecture at Berkeley, Judge Sotomayor now famously said, "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." Sotomayor will be accountable to this statement, with its own brand of ethnic hierarchy. Nobody is above scrutiny. Yet it is crucial that we can both critically question statements such as this and also understand the politics of empathy and individual insight.

Life experience and personal attributes come into question only when they challenge rigid assumptions about gender -- and race, or class, or ethnicity. That's how stereotypes work. It's a tired old story. In 2009, it's surprising to see politicians still promoting it and the mainstream media still falling for it.