Newt Gingrich has retreated from calling Judge Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama's nominee to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter, a racist because she dared to declare that being a "wise Latina woman" helps make her a good judge.
"My initial reaction was strong and direct — perhaps too strong and too direct," he admitted recently. "The sentiment struck me as racist, and I said so. Since then, some who want to have an open and honest consideration of Judge Sotomayor's fitness to serve on the nation's highest court have been critical of my word choice."
Call me naive, but I can't be the only person who was left wondering: What does that last sentence imply? Is Gingrich admitting that only his critics "want an open and honest consideration of Judge Sotomayor's fitness"? That those who don't want "an open and honest consideration" applaud his calling her a racist? Hmmm.
Gingrich continues: "Has President Obama nominated a conventionally liberal judge to lifetime tenure on our highest court? Or a radical liberal activist who will cast aside the rule of law in favor of the narrow, divisive politics of race and gender identity?"
For Gingrich, a presumed 2012 presidential candidate trying to woo the GOP's conservative base, this latest response is certainly a gentler approach to Sotomayor's nomination than his previous name-calling.
Wasn't it Ronald Reagan who said that facts are stubborn things?
In the 96 race-related cases that she ruled on while serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals, Sotomayor, noted Supreme Court expert Tom Goldstein, rejected the claim of discrimination in 78 of them. She agreed with the claim of discrimination only 10 times, and in those 10 cases, nine were unanimous decisions.
Nevertheless, GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham is evidently quaking in fear that Sotomayor's "wise Latina woman" comment means that, as a Supreme Court justice, she will not treat white males fairly. "Being an average, everyday white guy," said Graham, "that doesn't exactly make me feel good."
Gingrich, Graham and the conservative cabal of knee-jerk reactionaries against the idea of a Latina woman on the Supreme Court should get the facts before coming to the preposterous conclusion that just because someone who is not a white male finds strength and pride in who they are does not mean he or she is a racist with hostile feelings toward white men or anyone else.
Invectives couched as "demonstrating concerns about one's background" have no place in politics today. Members of the U.S. Senate are called upon to advise and consent — not use the nomination process to demonize and fearmonger for partisan political gain. It's wrong when the left smears judicial candidates and equally so for the right. The debate should focus on Sotomayor's judicial record, and there is plenty there to discuss in a civil manner.
What's so curious about all this trumped-up outrage is that Sotomayor has made similar remarks in the past. In a 1994 speech on women in the judiciary before the Conference on Law Reviews, Sotomayor said: "First, if Professor Martha Minnow is correct, there can never be a universal definition of 'wise.' Second, I would hope that a wise woman with the richness of her experience would, more often than not, reach a better conclusion. What is better? I, like Professor Resnik, hope that better will mean a more compassionate and caring conclusion."
These comments were disclosed to the Senate Judiciary Committee when Sotomayor was nominated for the Court of Appeals in 1997. Yet not one word of alarm arose from anyone in the U.S. Senate. No one lifted an eyebrow. So what's the big deal now? Why have critics like Pat Buchanan gone so far as to call upon conservatives to "stand up for the white working class"?
It's important that cooler heads examine Sotomayor's statements and her rulings. They will find that the point the judge was trying to make is that life experience, including one's background, can impact how judges understand the facts of cases — but not determine the outcome or how they will apply the law.
Moreover, Sotomayor has confirmed that it is the rule of law, not one's personal background, that guides a decision. Patrick Leahy, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee that will oversee her nomination, asked Sotomayor for clarification on her "wise Latina remark." According to Leahy, she responded, "Of course one's life experience shapes who you are." But, she added, "Ultimately and completely, a judge has to follow the law no matter what their upbringing has been."
Senators on both sides are now calling for a fair and civil confirmation process. Judge Sonia Sotomayor — and the American people — deserve nothing less. If given a fair hearing, I have no doubt that a smart and dedicated jurist who also happens to be a wise Latina will be sitting on the bench when the Supreme Court convenes later this year.
Donna Brazile is a political commentator on CNN, ABC and NPR; contributing columnist to Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill; and former campaign manager for Al Gore.