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The First Hispanic Justice:

Is there any evidence that choosing a Supreme Court nominee from a certain sex or race has any political impact? Jan Crawford Greenburg writes today, for instance:

President Obama had been "very interested" in her from the start, said one top adviser, and almost immediately, his political advisers--led by Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel--urged him to make history by tapping the first Hispanic justice.

The selection of Sotomayor, they argued, would energize a key and growing constituency, which could well be disappointed in coming months by expected failures to get meaningful immigration reform.

Is there any evidence that Ronald Reagan gained any real electoral benefit by appointing Sandra Day O'Connor? Or what about all the black votes that George H.W. Bush picked up by appointing Clarence Thomas? The Italians for the appointment of the first Italian Justice, Antonin Scalia? Did the Republicans really lose political support because George W. Bush appointed two white males instead of appointing a woman to replace O'Connor?

I have to say, I just don't see it. Is there really a group of people out there who simultaneously (1) are well-enough informed and educated to follow the Supreme Court carefully and (2) would be impressed by the "diversity" of the candidate, as opposed to their judicial philosophy, ideology, or voting pattern on the Court? If so, who are these people?

Recall the effort by the Republican Party to rally Hispanics in outrage over the filibuster of Miguel Estrada:

Mr. Bendixen's poll found that 28 percent of Hispanics support the nomination, while 11 percent opposed it and 61 percent weren't aware of the nomination or didn't have an opinion.

He said that, based on listening to some of the poll interviews, it was clear many of those who supported Mr. Estrada were also confusing him with actor Erik Estrada, who was on the 1977-1983 television police drama "CHiPS" and is now a popular Spanish-language soap-opera star.

"Many of them think President Bush nominated Erik Estrada — I'd say a good third think that way," Mr. Bendixen said, adding that he heard one person say Mr. Estrada should be confirmed because he did such a good job playing a policeman on "CHiPS."

Republicans' own numbers confirm that most Hispanics aren't aware of the situation. A poll released last week of 800 Hispanics, taken by Alexandria-based Latino Opinions and not limited to registered voters, showed that just one-third were aware the Estrada nomination is pending and being blocked.

I recognize that the Supreme Court is higher-profile than the DC Circuit. But 2006 was probably the most high-profile year for the Supreme Court in recent memory, perhaps in history. Two appointments and the highly controversial nomination of Harriet Miers. Even then, a poll found that 57 percent of Americans could not name a single Supreme Court Justice. The poll also found:

The percentage of Americans who can name all nine current Supreme Court justices, statistically speaking, is zero.

The percentage of Americans who can name eight or more of the nine current Supreme Court justices also statistically rounds to zero.

Incorrect responses from those surveyed as to who is currently serving on the U.S. Supreme Court included George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, Thurgood Marshall and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I also recognize that I'm not the professional politician here. But these positions like Supreme Court and cabinet officials are really pretty obscure to most Americans. And those voters who can actually name these people largely seem to think it irrelevant to how they vote. So while the conventional wisdom is that there is a savvy political calculus here, I just don't see it.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Cardozo, Sotomayor, and "Hispanic":
  2. The First Hispanic Justice:
Soronel Haetir (mail):
For whatever future political points SCOTUS confirmations are worth, I think GWB delivered to the group he was after. That was one of the few areas where even his critics would have to accord him a political success. Medicare D enfuriated his base and I'm not sure anyone likes NCLB but with Roberts and Alito Bush actually accomplished both what he said he would do and set out to do.
5.26.2009 10:36pm
Suzy (mail):
Let me make clear that I think this is a terrible reason to choose someone, and I hope it wasn't a big factor in the decision. That said, I don't think people have to be incredibly well-informed or concerned about the Court in order to be politically influenced by this nomination. Basically, it will be heard as "Obama shows his support of and respect for Hispanics," and that's as specific as it has to be to have that impact.
5.26.2009 10:38pm
Terrivus:
The difference is that the interest groups that already support Obama will remind their respective constituencies of this nomination when election time rolls around. You don't think that La Raza, La Alianza, and countless other similarly-situated groups aren't going to use this against whatever Republican nominee faces Obama? "Look what Obama has done for us. What has this Republican ever done?"

These interest groups aren't inclined to push for Republicans. So if a Republican were to nominate a Hispanic, the groups would likely give it the ol' "doesn't speak for all Hispanics" line, in the same way that when the GOP nominated a woman for vice-president, all of a sudden feminist groups realized they wanted a woman, just not that type of woman.
5.26.2009 10:44pm
Terrivus:
Is there any evidence that Ronald Reagan gained any real electoral benefit by appointing Sandra Day O'Connor?

Considering that Reagan pledged during the campaign to nominate a woman, yes, it probably did help him: (a) It probably won him votes in the presidential election, either directly or because his vow likely deflected claims that he was a white-male-militarist ogre, aiding his overall cause. (b) The fact that he then stuck to his promise probably won him praise as someone who, well, sticks to his word from the campaign. Would that current presidents did the same.
5.26.2009 10:48pm
GB (mail):
Political impact for what, or for whom?

For Obama -- he kept his word and got to do something he said he wanted to do, so he accomplished a goal and assured certain voters they were getting what they voted for. He's campaigning 24/7 through his Internet outreach, so everything he does is visible to a large block of supporters.

For down-ballot Democrats -- Hispanics happy with this choice of Sotomayor, who would have preferred Hillary Clinton, may be able to see Obama as an ally now.

For Republicans -- this may energize a few more voters angry at racial preferences.

I believe there is impact on several levels.
5.26.2009 10:53pm
Desiderius:
"Is there really a group of people out there who would be impressed by the "diversity" of the candidate, as opposed to their judicial philosophy, ideology, or voting pattern on the Court?"

Yes.

"If so, who are these people?"

Think class, not race.
5.26.2009 11:05pm
drunkdriver:
Good point as to the broader electorate, but pols really aim these appointments at activi$t groups who can help them, or hurt them a little less. Also it doesn't hurt their press coverage.
5.26.2009 11:22pm
BIFFO (mail):
Ummm - doesn't that violate 42 U.S.C. 2000e-2 l
"unlawful employment practice is established when the complaining party demonstrates that race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was a motivating factor for any employment practice"
5.26.2009 11:35pm
Ray Campbell:
It's not just what Obama does; it's also how the Republicans react.

Are Hispanics or women going to vote Democratic just because Obama named a Latina to the Court? Probably not.

But might women or Hispanics become firm Democrats if they hear Republican after Republican describe a Princeton summa graduate who went on to excel at Yale Law as an "intellectually shallow" affirmative action candidate? You betcha. In a world where a lot of women and Hispanics feel they have to be demonstrably better to be considered just as good, a case study in condescension could generate some pushback with staying power.
5.27.2009 12:05am
BGates:
urged him to make history by tapping the first Hispanic justice

That would make history.

But Michelle would be pissed.
5.27.2009 12:28am
/:
In a world where a lot of women and Hispanics feel they have to be demonstrably better to be considered just as good, a case study in condescension could generate some pushback with staying power.


Nothing better shows that some people are just as good as other people than treating them preferentially!
5.27.2009 2:17am
DCP:

Clarence Thomas might have actually had the opposite effect of whatever window dressing benefits his nomination might have entailed. He became such a lightning rod for criticism that he is now a symbol (albeit unfairly) of what blacks should never be.

You have to wonder how many bright and talented blacks with conservative leanings have either tempered their ideology or withdrawn from high profile ambitions simply out of fear that they will be lumped in with the unholy trinity of evil - Clarence Thomas, Condi Rice and Uncle Tom. Even Michael Jordan was attacked simply for not being more critical of the political ideologies of some of his fans and shoe store patrons.
5.27.2009 2:48am
Leo Marvin (mail):
BGates wins.
5.27.2009 3:13am
Plumb Bob (mail):

The percentage of Americans who can name all nine current Supreme Court justices, statistically speaking, is zero.

The percentage of Americans who can name eight or more of the nine current Supreme Court justices also statistically rounds to zero.


Thank you so much for confirming my status as a freak.
5.27.2009 4:24am
Eli Rabett (www):
At the time Scalia was nominated Italian Americans were key cross-overs to the Republicans as part of the ethnically centered Reagan Democrats movement. It was also true at the time that relatively few Catholics had served on the court/were serving, so that also played into the politics of the appointment. The fact that Scalia would be the first Italian American was stressed in just about every comment and news report (Henry Abrahams who wrote Justices, Presidents and Senators actually counted or perhaps better said sampled this). It was, at the time a source of immense pride in the Italian American Community, so yes, that is a good example of what is happening now.

Sauce, goose, gander
5.27.2009 6:32am
guest:
"Is there really a group of people out there who would be impressed by the "diversity" of the candidate, as opposed to their judicial philosophy, ideology, or voting pattern on the Court?"

As written, you are attacking a straw person. The problem is with your premise: it is not "as opposed to" it is "in addition" to. And there are many serious court watchers and advocates who believe that diversity of experiences can bring welcome insight into the process by which a case came up (particularly in the criminal context) and the real-world consequences of the Court's decisions.

Theory is helpful, but Kant got at least one thing wrong: the old saw about theory and practice contains quite a bit of truth.
5.27.2009 7:47am
BladeDoc (mail):
Of course it does -- just not for Republicans. As Terrivus pointed out more gently when Obama picks a minority SC nominee it's because he "wants to give minorities a voice" when a Republican president does it it's because he wants "a house negro on the bench" -- all of us can remember that and worse being said about Clarence Thomas (not to mention Condi in her position).
5.27.2009 8:32am
BladeDoc (mail):
sorry, posted too soon.

You don't need to be especially well informed (actually it works better for the spin not to be) to incorporate that pre-packed world view into your thought process.
5.27.2009 8:34am
RPT (mail):
"GB:

For Republicans -- this may energize a few more voters angry at racial preferences."

Do you mean that R's will attack any non-white male nominee as being a "racial preference?" That would appear to be so.
5.27.2009 9:53am
RPT (mail):
Miguel Estrada had issues which SS does not: failure to release his work product and little or no relevant experience.
5.27.2009 9:59am
Sunshine is good:
The best froth example was asking for her LSAT scores instead of looking at her case history of over ten years making rulings. So when I evaluate a carpenter to build my new church, I would ask about his practical exam score instead of asking to look at the actual related work he had done for ten years? Right... As if proving AA works is somehow a point against it?

If the Republicans work a little harder on evaluating her legal opinions instead of whining about affirmative action, they would look a little more grown up and ready to sit at the adult table again...

I know that I was embarassed to see Democrats doing the identity war on Thomas and Roberts, and it doesn't look any more mature when the R's are doing the same thing.

I suppose this is still part of conservatives in the wilderness, though..
5.27.2009 10:35am
The Unbeliever:
I think we're missing a very basic political reality here.
Is there any evidence that Ronald Reagan gained any real electoral benefit by appointing Sandra Day O'Connor? Or what about all the black votes that George H.W. Bush picked up by appointing Clarence Thomas?... Did the Republicans really lose political support because George W. Bush appointed two white males instead of appointing a woman to replace O'Connor?
Better question: were any of those Presidents a member of the major political party whose entire platform is based around identity politics? Did the voters* those Presidents courted care more about ethnicity than about policy?

Obama (or any random Democrat in the Senate, for that matter) demonstrably does not need to impress his core constituency with resumes, experience, favorable numbers or any such "hard" argument for his actions.** It's enough for him to have a narrative, to pitch a feel-good story that can be summed up in a slogan length phrase.

*Maybe I just didn't read enough bios on her, but this post on the VC is actually the first time I learned Sotomayor was Hispanic. And it hasn't changed my opinion of the pick at all, though it provides enough material for a spurious Internet comment!

**Not to say Sotomayor lacks these qualifications; but a very real demographic segment sees those as less important, more of a "check the box" item on the resume, than as the key criteria of a pick.
5.27.2009 11:05am
pluribus:
Ray Campbell:

But might women or Hispanics become firm Democrats if they hear Republican after Republican describe a Princeton summa graduate who went on to excel at Yale Law as an "intellectually shallow" affirmative action candidate? You betcha.

Well stated. If the Republicans take this approach, they will be further eroding their support--making the tent even smaller and more exclusive than it already is. Many Republicans think that is just fine. Since I disagree so strongly with my former party and what it has come to stand for, I would agree.
5.27.2009 12:14pm
pluribus:
The Unbeliever:

It's enough for him [Obama[ to have a narrative, to pitch a feel-good story that can be summed up in a slogan length phrase.

Keep on believing this and Obama's approval rating will continue to soar while that of his Republican opposition will continue to tank. Obama is one of the most intelligent, informed, and thoughtful presidents I have ever seen (and I'm old enough to have seen a lot). His speeches are not only articulate, they are unusually nuanced. He spoke last week about national security policy for 45 minutes, and every word he spoke made sense. If Republicans continue to underestimate this president, if they think he is only capable of slogans, they will be committing a political mistake of major proportions.
5.27.2009 12:23pm
D88 (mail):
pluribus:


Obama is one of the most intelligent, informed, and thoughtful presidents I have ever seen


The point is (to quote The Unbeliever):


a very real demographic segment sees those as less important, more of a "check the box" item on the resume
5.27.2009 1:23pm
M N Ralph:

Is there really a group of people out there who simultaneously (1) are well-enough informed and educated to follow the Supreme Court carefully and (2) would be impressed by the "diversity" of the candidate, as opposed to their judicial philosophy, ideology, or voting pattern on the Court? If so, who are these people?


Yes; for Sotomayor, leaders and people involved in Hispanic organizations, Hispanic community leaders, Hispanic businessmen, Hispanic media stars. Relatively speaking, it's not many people; maybe only a few thousand. But, their influence is massively disproportional to their numbers. Who do you think those who say Mr. Estrada should be confirmed because he did such a good job playing a policeman on "CHiPS" look to for their voting cues? They damned sure aren't reviewing large quantities of political and current events news and then making a careful and deliberate analysis of who to vote for.
5.27.2009 1:53pm
The Unbeliever:
Obama is one of the most intelligent, informed, and thoughtful presidents I have ever seen (and I'm old enough to have seen a lot). His speeches are not only articulate, they are unusually nuanced.
Why, you RACIST! You horrible Republican racist! How dare you use codewords that belittle Obam--oh I'm sorry, the campaign is over, isn't it. It's OK for his supporters to stumble over Kerr's Law again (what a difference 2 years makes--Joe Biden, call your office).

Nice to see the winner, helped along by his magical speech wherein he threw his pastor under the metaphorical bus, finally "turned a page in our history", rose above the fray, and is governing and making nominations completely devoid of identity politics. Oh wait...
5.27.2009 3:21pm
Jim Rose (mail) (www):
Americans can name more of Snow White's dwarfs that Justices of the Supreme Court.

Americans are also more familiar with the Three Stooges than the three branches of government, with 74 percent able to correctly identify Larry, Curly, and Moe, while only 42 percent could name the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

For the court as a whole, 41 percent of voters rated the Court good or excellent; 19 percent rated it poor. Yet of all the justices, only one got a favorable rating when the inquiry is on a name by name basis. The ratings for the individual justices are as follows:

Thomas: 38 percent favorable, 50 percent unfavorable

Ginsburg: 36 percent favorable, 35 percent unfavorable

Alito: 26 percent favorable, 38 percent unfavorable

Roberts: 26 percent favorable, 30 percent unfavorable

Scalia: 27 percent favorable, 40 percent unfavorable

Stevens: 17 percent favorable, 30 percent unfavorable

Kennedy: 25 percent favorable, 33 percent unfavorable

Breyer: 18 percent favorable, 28 percent unfavorable

Souter: 16 percent favorable, 31 percent unfavorable.
5.27.2009 3:23pm
CCD:
After the past decade, the whole diversity-in-appointments game has been unmasked for the absolute sham it is. Bill Clinton promised to appoint a cabinet that "looked like America." His non-white male picks were largely inconsequential, none of whom occupied any major positions in the executive branch. GW, on the other hand, promised nothing in that sense but nevertheless selected minorities for major positions, including secretary of state (twice), national security advisor, attorney general, the supreme Court (Harriet Miers), and other positions. Instead of being lauded for his picks, GW got zero recognition and his appointees were crucified by the same factions who now dare Republicans to challenge the Sotomayor pick.

The fact is, with Democrats diversity is only important if the ideology fits. As Gloria Steinem graciously explained last fall, a minority with conservative views is not a minority at all. Ask Sarah Palin, Condi Rice, Colin Powell (before he changed teams), Alberto Gonzalez, Miguel Estrada, and Viet Dinh. The whole diversity thing is simply a hollow lie.
5.27.2009 3:37pm
Rich Rostrom (mail):
There are lots of politically motivated actions which are not aimed at the general public (or some segment of it).

They are aimed at the politically aware and informed stratum, which leads the larger masses. What MN Ralph noted above.

The average hispanic may never have heard about Sotomayor. I suspect that will change over the next three months, as she receives extensive, glowing coverage from the mass media, especially the Spanish-language media. (I'd bet, though, that her Puerto Rican background will be elided - and that most Mexican-Americans will assume she is one of them.)

Regardless, politically aware, informed, and active hispanics will all know about this. It will appeal strongly to those hispanics devoted to identity politics; they are already being encouraged to celebrate this "historic moment". (I seem to have missed the celebration of the "historic moment" when a hispanic was elevated to the highest legal office in the Executive Branch, 7th in line of succession to the Presidency.)

Of course, Republican opposition to Sotomayor will be construed and denounced as anti-hispanic and racist - thus reinforcing the loyalty of liberals, Jews, and blacks.

RPT:Do you mean that R's will attack any non-white male nominee as being a "racial preference?"

No, it means that Sotomayor is vulnerable for upholding blatant racial preference by her dubious ruling (in content and form) in Ricci v. DeStefano.
5.27.2009 9:46pm
Assistant Village Idiot (mail) (www):
Let me get this straight: asking for her LSAT's is irrelevant (look at her record), but touting her as a Princeton summa and YLS is okay. Noticing that this is an identity politics nominee is okay, but complaining that it's an AA nominee isn't. Criticising her public statements is taking her out of context, and criticising her work as intellectually shallow is a bad political move because it has to be a dodge - because she's a Princeton summa and YLS so it just isn't possible that the criticism is true.

Roy, you've got it nicely worked that whoever disagrees with you must be doing it for bad motives, so it not only will work against them politically, it should. Because you're going to sell that idea.

Seems a touch circular.
5.27.2009 10:39pm

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