An examination of Sotomayor's career supports the idea that on the bench, she has been a racial moderate, not a radical. At the same time, her opinions and speeches suggest that her views about race, multiculturalism and identity politics are more nuanced, complex and provocative than either her critics or her supporters have allowed. And for that reason, if confirmed, she could influence the racially charged issues the Supreme Court will confront over the next few decades in unexpected ways. . . .
Sotomayor does not appear to be a crusader for radical change. She has always sought change from within the system rather than fundamentally challenging its premises. As a student at Princeton, she co-chaired a Puerto Rican student organization and filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about Princeton's affirmative-action failures, leading to the hiring of the first Hispanic dean of students. But she acted in such a constructive way that William Bowen, then university president, helped select her for the Pyne Prize, the highest honor Princeton bestows on undergraduates. Sotomayor's experiences as an outsider in an Ivy League world seem to have made her pragmatic rather than rigid, leading her to thrive within the Establishment even as she sought to improve it. . . .
Sotomayor's unique background and views about race and gender are likely to become more important over time. In coming years, there may well be challenges to the death penalty, for example, on the grounds that it is imposed in a racially discriminatory way. The court rejected that claim in 1987, but Sotomayor might be sympathetic to it. In 1981, as a member of the board of directors of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, she was part of a committee that recommended that the fund oppose the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York State on the grounds that "capital punishment is associated with evident racism in our society."
Sotomayor's more liberal inclinations in immigration cases may also make a difference on a court that will increasingly have to wrestle with legal distinctions in the U.S. between citizens and aliens. As Obama disappoints civil libertarians by reaffirming aspects of President Bush's antiterrorism policies — including the claim that terrorism detainees held by U.S. forces in Afghanistan have no legal right to challenge their detention in U.S. courts — some of these policies may reach the Supreme Court. Sotomayor could prove skeptical of the claim often made by the government that the rights of aliens differ sharply from the rights of citizens in the war on terrorism and in other cases.
If Sotomayor is confirmed, as expected, the only thing one can confidently predict is that the cases involving race and diversity that she will confront are very different from the ones we are thinking about today. In that sense, the evolution of Sotomayor's thinking in the years ahead may be more consequential than what she has said in her past.
Rosen on Sotomayor, Part Tres: