Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Ugly Role of Race, Class, and Gender in the Right Wing's Opposition To Supreme Court Nominee Sonia Sotomayor


The dynamics of Race & Gender/Gender & Race in an openly racist and sexist society...and the ongoing cultural and political battles against it.

...And oh yeah please don't forget CLASS as well. Capitalism takes a backseat to NO ONE...


July 19, 2009


Women on the Verge of the Law: From Anita Hill to Sonia Sotomayor

New York Times

A lone woman sits at the witness table, hoping her Yale law degree will help her survive a charged Supreme Court confirmation hearing. She faces a battery of powerful white senators on the Judiciary Committee, a contrast that cannot help but make her look like easy pickings.

That was the tableau inside the Senate Judiciary Committee back in 1991, when Anita Hill leveled her accusations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas, who had been nominated for the Supreme Court by President George H. W. Bush. But the scene was repeated last week as Judge Sonia Sotomayor took her seat at the table. Although in this tableau she was the nominee and not the opposition witness — and although there was little of the raw tension and none of the unhinged free-for-all that characterized the earlier proceedings — there were unmistakable echoes.

Despite the nearly two decades that separated these women’s Senate moments, Professor Hill and Judge Sotomayor are both from the generation of women who graduated from distinguished law schools in a second wave beginning in the late 1970s. It was a time when law firms, the government and even the judiciary were eager to add women and minorities to their staffs.

The two are linked in another way. Together, their experiences before the committee summarize a change in recent American politics. Professor Hill’s treatment by an all-male Judiciary panel presaged an outcry of “They just don’t get it!” and the election of many more women to the Congress. And the atmosphere of those earlier proceedings also insured a far tamer set of hearings this time, as neither Republicans nor Democrats have wanted to face the kind of damage inflicted by the partisan circus of 1991.

Inside the hearing room last week, a number of figures who played important roles in the Hill-Thomas confrontation were again present, although some in different parts. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a onetime chairman of the Judiciary Committee whose harshly prosecutorial questioning of Ms. Hill almost cost him re-election in 1992, was now on the Democratic side of the dais, looking a bit out of place. His suddenly junior status placed him next to the party’s newest member, Al Franken. Mr. Specter, too, was having flashbacks.

“Professor Hill produced the year of women in the Senate,” he recalled during a break. “That proceeding was a real lesson to me. I heard from so many women who saw themselves in her place, who felt their veracity was being questioned along with hers.”

Another familiar face was Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, whose questions about pornographic movies, especially one with a character named Long Dong Silver, and suggestions that Ms. Hill had fabricated her testimony, helped ignite women’s anger. Questioning Judge Sotomayor last week, Mr. Hatch was among the tamest of the Republicans. Whispering in his ear was his aide Thomas Jipping, who in 1991 was an influential conservative activist working for Paul Weyrich, the movement leader who coined the phrase “moral majority.” When Mr. Jipping was asked by the first Bush White House to suggest a nominee who might excite the conservative base, he supplied a single name: Clarence Thomas.

Senator Patrick Leahy, too, was a holdover from the Thomas hearings. Now the Judiciary chairman, he has played the role of avuncular protector to Judge Sotomayor. He seemed relaxed and jocular in these hearings, signaling his confidence that she would be confirmed easily. When the Republican senators doggedly returned to the judge’s “wise Latina” remarks, Mr. Leahy and his Democratic colleagues, with discipline not always seen in the past, steered the subject back to her long, rather mainstream judicial record. It was a tight script, one coordinated with the White House. Not so in 1991. Ms. Hill did not receive much help from the Democrats on the committee, and the tempestuous proceedings made Mr. Leahy so distraught that he feared he was having a heart attack and was rushed to a hospital.

In 1991, there were no women on the Judiciary Committee; today there are just 2 among the 19 members. One of them is Dianne Feinstein, elected in 1992 as part of the so-called Anita Hill class, which brought a record number of women to the House (47) and Senate (6). Senator Feinstein noted that when Judge Sotomayor graduated from Yale Law in 1979, there had never been a woman on the Supreme Court and that although women represent 50.7 percent of the population, 48 percent of law school graduates and 30 percent of American lawyers, there are now only 17 women in the Senate and one on the Supreme Court.

“So we’re making progress, but we’re not there yet,” Ms. Feinstein said.

She invited Judge Sotomayor to expound, but the judge didn’t bite, instead talking about how she hoped to be a role model for “Americans of all kinds and all backgrounds.”

Sitting approvingly behind Judge Sotomayor through the long hours was her White House handler, Cynthia Hogan. Judge Sotomayor’s almost robotic performance must have seemed a triumph for Ms. Hogan, working as she does for a president who famously eschews drama. In 1991, Ms. Hogan often sat behind Joe Biden, who was then chairman of the Judiciary Committee, as he struggled to keep the spectacle from turning into theater of the absurd.

That legacy has left little possibility for what Senator Lindsey Graham called the only thing that could scuttle Judge Sotomayor’s confirmation: “a complete meltdown” in the hearing room. In 1987, Robert Bork proved that it was confirmation suicide to have a frank discussion about judicial philosophy, and nominees have since refused to drop even small hints about their views on issues that might come before the court.

Personal background checks of nominees are now so rigorous that there is little chance of a skeleton dancing out of the closet. Although there were references to Judge Sotomayor’s running a “hot bench,” and anonymous comments accusing her of bullying lawyers, her preternaturally measured statements blunted them. The wild times of the Bork and Thomas hearings are over, and confirmations have become so sedate that several prominent lawyers loudly complained that absolutely nothing about either the law or Judge Sotomayor was learned in four days of hearings.

Still, history is being made. The first Latina, and third woman, will be appointed to the court. And though Republicans pushed her into disowning her “wise Latina” remarks, the full texts of those speeches reveal an interesting generational shift between Judge Sotomayor and the women who preceded her, Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justices O’Connor and Ginsburg were among a tiny minority of women in their law school classes, and both faced barriers as they broke into the legal profession. (Justice O’Connor was offered secretarial jobs after graduating third in her Stanford Law class in 1952.) Justice Ginsburg vividly recalls that when she entered law school in 1956, the dean asked each of the nine women in the class why they were at Harvard, taking the seat of a man.

Much had changed by the 1970s, when Judge Sotomayor entered Yale. The nation’s best law schools were filling up with what Stephen Carter, a Yale law professor, calls affirmative action babies. By the time Judge Sotomayor graduated, women made up 28 percent of all law graduates. Law firms were aggressively recruiting more women, as were judicial chambers and, in Judge Sotomayor’s case, prosecutors’ offices.

With a lot of hard work and long hours, women were breaking into the partnership ranks of white-shoe firms and onto the upper rungs of the federal judiciary. (Notwithstanding the greater opportunities for women, Judge Sotomayor filed a grievance when a law firm refused to consider her for employment because, she said, she was Latina.)

But success came at a price. Judge Sotomayor has talked about having to turn down dates because of work. “A man who calls three times, and three times you answer, ‘I’ve got to work late,’ ‘I’m flying to such and such a place,’ ” she said, “After the third time, ‘gee, maybe she’s not interested.’ ” Even her closest friends say they have to set up “play dates” months in advance. Although she is a godmother to her clerks’ children and a devoted aunt, Judge Sotomayor divorced after seven years of marriage and has no children.

Judge Sotomayor’s struggles resonate with Alice Young, who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1974, a few years before Judge Sotomayor. She notes that most of the women in her class who made partner at law firms did not marry or have children. “You had to make a choice about what was more important, your professional or personal life,” she said. (In Ms. Young’s case, the road led to partnership, as well as marriage and children.)

The women coming up behind Judge Sotomayor have given these tradeoffs a lot of agonized thought. Emily Bazelon, a fellow at Yale Law School, has been writing about the hearings for Double X, Slate’s new women’s Web site. “Women of accomplishment like Sotomayor make many of us so proud,” she said, “but they are not necessarily a model if you want to balance work and family, which is a huge issue for younger lawyers.”

Lauren Gerber is a leader of Yale Law Women, which recently sponsored a conference that examined the pressures on social and family life in the legal profession. While finding a balance has been particularly elusive for women, Ms. Gerber noted that quite a few men showed up for the conference.

Someone who is celebrating Judge Sotomayor’s elevation to the Supreme Court without ambiguity is Anita Hill, who graduated from Yale Law one year after her and now teaches social policy, law and women’s studies at Brandeis University. “As an experienced lawyer and jurist,” Ms. Hill wrote on the first day of the hearings, “Judge Sotomayor is representative of a generation of hardworking and talented women lawyers.”

Jill Abramson, a managing editor of The Times, is co-author of “Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas” and “Where They Are Now: The Story of the Women of Harvard Law 1974.”

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company