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Banking on Biography

Jan Greenburg Crawford writes about the White House’s decision-making process:

As the first Hispanic nominee, with a compelling life story and rich judicial experience, Sotomayor would be hardest for Republicans to oppose, they argued, and therefore easiest for Obama to get confirmed.

Indeed, some Republican senators, while publicly vowing a fight, privately conceded the difficulties they will face in opposing the first Hispanic nominee.

Those calculations could have given her the edge over Wood, who would be more of a fight, political advisers warned, in light of her paper trail of speeches and appeals court opinions.

Obama’s advisers also were aware of a political reality on the Left, sources said. Sotomayor has the added bonus of placating his base, which has grown increasingly angry over some of Obama’s recent positions on terrorism.

[. . .]

With Sotomayor’s experience and personal story, one top adviser said, “there was no question where the arrow pointed.”

Jonathan Turley comes right out and says it: she’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

These observations from non-conservatives are noteworthy for a few reasons. First, Sotomayor — who has made identity politics her life’s work — has now reached the top of her profession, as an identity politics champion and a bone tossed to leftist interest groups. How nice! Well, except if you agree with Turley that legal smarts should be the primary consideration for the Court.

Second, for a constitutional “scholar,” the president seems notably unmoved by legal scholarship. Biography and politics triumph over all. We have hit a new low in Supreme Court selection when a pick’s Nancy Drew reading is worthy of mention in the presidential announcement. (Really, who cares?) The announcement statement is remarkable and, in some sense, shocking in its reliance on long passages entitled “An American Story” and “Commitment to Community.” (Compare this to the announcement of John Roberts’s nomination, which discretely and briefly mentions some personal data points.) These details shouldn’t matter, but to the president they are virtually all that matters.

Dana Milbank put it bluntly:

In selecting Sotomayor, Obama opted for biography over brain. As a legal mind, Sotomayor is described in portraits as competent, but no Louis Brandeis. Nor is Sotomayor, often described as an abrasive jurist, likely to be the next Earl Warren. But her bio is quite a hit. In Spanish, her surname can be translated as “big thicket” — and that’s just where Republicans could find themselves if they oppose this up-from-poverty Latina.

He’s right, of course. And it is — or should be — breathtaking.

Third, because the president prizes politics and biography above all else he assumes conservatives do as well and therefore his nominee will have an easy time. But is this right? Are conservatives less inclined to vigorously contest someone who is offered up as an exemplar of identity politics and who doubts her own impartiality? Are they not  excited about opposing a judge whose commitment to affirmative action goes so far as to engage in legal gamesmanship that results in denying firefighter Frank Ricci an appeal on the merits of his claim? Well, as they say, perhaps the president was misinformed.

Whatever this is, it sure isn’t post-racial politics. And I suspect it won’t be an easy confirmation.



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