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Sonia Sotomayor's Background Will Affect Her Judicial Decisions -- and That's a Good Thing

By Jill Filipovic


Let's get this out of the way first: Sonia Sotomayor is not a perfect liberal judge. She is not astoundingly progressive or notably feminist. She isn't a tireless champion of civil rights or a first amendment absolutist. She is, however, a highly intelligent, fair-minded and experienced judge who will make a fine addition to the US Supreme Court, and who progressives should fully support.

Much has been made of Sotomayor's life story, and it is impressive. Born and raised into a Puerto Rican family living in a housing project in the South Bronx, Sotomayor earned a scholarship to Princeton University, where she graduated summa cum laude. She went on to Yale Law School, where she was editor of the Yale Law Journal, and after graduating worked in the New York district attorney's office. She was nominated to the federal district court by George HW Bush and elevated to the second circuit court of appeals by Bill Clinton. In both cases, her confirmation went smoothly.

Republicans and conservatives will argue that her nomination is an exercise in affirmative action, and that Barack Obama has effectively posted a "White males need not apply" sign on the doors of the Supreme Court – a funny complaint about an institution that is almost entirely white and male. Democrats and liberals will predictably trip over themselves arguing that Sotomayor's race and gender don't matter, even while race and gender matter.

The reality, of course, is that every Supreme Court justice comes in with a set of life experiences that are shaped not only by race and gender, but by experiences both professional and personal – it's just that few people consider that whiteness and maleness are not neutral identities and may shape one's perspectives and legal opinions just as much as femaleness or non-whiteness. Sotomayor herself has said: "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." And she's right.

While that quote is sure to be brought up as evidence that she's a "liberal activist", it's more indicative of the kind of self-awareness and reflection we want in a Supreme Court justice.

Judges have a marked historical tendency to move left over their Supreme Court tenures. There remains quite a bit of debate over why there's such a pronounced liberal shift, and it is no doubt a complex phenomenon. But I suspect it has to do in part with a slow realization that the law has a real impact on peoples' lives, and that the law school classroom model of the law as a near-science and justice as consistency is fundamentally flawed and entirely unrealistic. "The law" as an academic exercise is certainly interesting, but one's view is bound to shift when, as Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy put it, "suddenly, there's a real person there."

Sotomayor is reflective and honest enough to recognize that her experiences – as a woman of color, as a prosecutor, as member of a working-class family, as a judge – inform her understanding of and her empathy toward whichever real person is standing before her. While other judges may downplay the role that their race, gender and experience play in their legal work, those things do exert influence. Sit on the bench long enough and it must eventually become clear that rigidly interpreting language, deferring to precedent and valuing consistency above all else often result in thoroughly unjust outcomes.

So far, Sotomayor has been the picture of moderation (albeit left-leaning moderation). She has had good first amendment decisions and one particularly bad one (Doninger v Niehoff,where her panel affirmed the right of a school to disqualify a student from running for senior class secretary after the student posted vulgar and misleading school-related comments on her personal website).

She is deferential to law enforcement, leading to decisions like United States v Howard,where she held that state troopers could lure suspects away from their vehicle in order to search it for drugs.

And the decision she wrote in Center for Reproductive Law and Policy v Bush, which held that a Bush-era law limiting reproductive healthcare aid to developing nations did not violate the first amendment, due process or equal protection rights, certainly did not please any reproductive justice advocates.

But those are hardly reflective of her entire body of work as a judge. She's very plaintiff-friendly in discrimination cases. She wrote a dissent arguing that the Voting Rights Act should apply when evaluating state felon disenfranchisement laws. She stood up for first amendment rights in a case where the protected speech/expression was bigoted and presumably not easy to defend. She supported the right of an inmate to bring a case against a private corporation for redress of constitutional violations (a position that was narrowly reversed by the Supreme Court in an opinion written by Rehnquist).

She has written particularly progressive opinions in the area of disability discrimination. She has sustained claims of a hostile work environment in cases where female employees were subjected to sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

It's also worth noting that she is filling the seat of a moderate justice, and that if this confirmation fails, it will be because conservatives succeed in their smear campaign – not because she's unqualified and certainly not because she's too liberal. That means that Obama's next pick would likely be even more middle-of-the-road, and undoubtedly less appealing to feminists and progressives.

Sotomayor is far from a perfect progressive, and even further from the rightwing caricature of her as a liberal activist judge. But her breadth of experience, both professional and personal, make her a highly qualified jurist, and would lend the court much-needed diversity of perspective. She is smart, inquisitive and concerned with justice above all else. And that is precisely what a Supreme Court justice should be.

Deportan sin fundamento a docente colombiano

Comunicado de Estudiantes del doctorado en Estudios Latinoamericanos, UNAM


Queremos denunciar por este medio la vejación a la que fue sometido el compañero Miguel Ángel Beltrán Villegas, quien se encuentra realizando estudios de posdoctorado en el Centro de Estudios Latinoamericanos, en la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. El doctor Beltrán es conocido en el medio académico colombiano, puesto que ha sido investigador y docente de las principales universidades del país, como la de Antioquia, la Nacional de Colombia y la del Cauca. Después de habérsele negado su condición migratoria (FM3) durante un año, en que se estuvo presentando de manera sistemática en las oficinas de Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM) en México, ayer, al mediodía (aunque el periódico El Tiempo de Colombia anunció que fue arrestado anteayer en la noche), fue detenido de manera arbitraria en el INM mientras solicitaba nuevamente respuesta a su condición migratoria e inmediatamente deportado. Se le acusa de ser integrante de las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, lo cual es completamente falso, pues tiene una larga trayectoria académica y de investigación que demuestra su labor como maestro preocupado por la historia política y de la violencia en Colombia.

Los compañeros del doctorado de Estudios Latinoamericanos exigimos al gobierno colombiano que rectifique las acusaciones hechas contra el profesor Miguel Ángel Beltrán, y que pare la cadena de persecución y estigmatización política adelantada contra docentes y estudiantes de las universidades públicas, que aportan en la construcción de posturas políticas críticas y que no comparten el proyecto guerrerista del actual gobierno.

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Mourning the Victims of Empire

Day of the Dead


I was on an airplane flying to Orange County from Sacramento to attend the al-Awda Conference; which is a Palestinian Right's Conference. Al-Awda translates to "The Returning, " when the Pilot's voice filled the cabin to make an announcement that I think went unnoticed by most of my fellow passengers, but I heard it.

As the plane was on the approach to John Wayne airport, the Captain came on the intercom to remind us all to "remember our brave troops who have died for our freedom." Even in this post 9-11 paranoid paradigm, if I wasn't belted in for landing, I would have popped out of my seat at 13D and charged up to the cockpit to let the pilot know that my son was killed in Iraq and not one person anywhere in this world is one iota more free because he is dead.

As a matter of fact, the people of Iraq, the foreign country thousands of miles away where my oldest child's brains, blood, and life seeped into the soil, are not freer, unless one counts being liberated from life, liberty and property being free. If you consider torture and indefinite detention freedom, then the Pilot may have been right, but then again, even if you do consider those crimes freedom, it does not make it so.

Here in America we are definitely not freer because my son died, as a matter of fact, our nation can spy on us and our communications without a warrant or just cause and we can't even bring a 3.6 ounce bottle of hand cream into an airport or walk through a METAL detector with our shoes on. Even if we do want to exercise our Bill of Rights, we are shoved into pre-designated "free speech" (NewSpeak for; STFU, unless you are well out of the way of what you want to protest and shoved into pens like cattle being led to slaughter) zones and oftentimes brutally treated if you decide you are entitled to "free speech" on every inch of American soil.

If you watch any one of the cable news networks this weekend between doing holiday weekend things, you will be subjected to images of row upon row of white headstones of dead US military lined up in perfect formation in the afterlife as they were in life. Patriotic music will swell and we will be reminded in script font to "Remember our heroes," or some such BS as that.

Before Casey was killed, a message like that would barely register in my consciousness as I rushed around preparing for Casey's birthday bar-be-que that became a family tradition since he was born on Memorial Day in 1979. If I had a vision of how Memorial Day and Casey's birthday would change for my family, I would have fled these violent shores to protect what was mine, not this murderous country's. Be my guest, look at those headstones with pride or indifference. I look at them, now with horror, regret, pain and a longing for justice.

I can guarantee what you won't see this holiday weekend are images of the over one million Iraqi dead. Say we assign, in an arbitrary way for purely illustrative purposes, an average height of 5 feet for every person killed in Iraq and then lined those people up from head to toe. That gruesome line would stretch from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon…950 driving miles up Interstate 5. If we count the Iraqis who have been forced to flee, we would have to go back and forth between L.A. and Portland another four times.

There are obscene amounts of people who have been slaughtered for the US Profit Driven Military Empire who do not count here in America on any day. People in Vietnam are still dying from the toxins dumped on their country by the US, not to mention the millions who died during that war. Let the carnage escalate in Afghanistan while we protect our personal images by turning a blind eye to Obama's war crimes. Are you going to feel a lump of pride in your bosom when the coffins start to be photographed at Dover for this imperial crime of aggression? Will you look at those flag-draped boxes of the lifeless body of some mother's child and think: "Now, I am free." Is it better to be dead when Obama is president?

A tough, but real, aspect of this all to consider is, how many of the soldiers buried in coffins in military cemeteries killed or tortured innocent people as paid goons for Empire? To me, it is deeply and profoundly sad on so many levels. If I have any consolation through all of this, I learned that my son bravely refused to go on the mission that killed him, but he was literally dragged onto the vehicle and was dead minutes later before he was forced to do something that was against his nature and nurture.

Casey will always be my hero but he was a victim of US Imperialism and his death should bring shame, not pride, as it did not bring freedom to anyone. I will, of course, mourn his senseless death on Memorial Day as I do everyday.

However, we do not need another day here in America to glorify war which enables the Military Industrial Complex to commit its crimes under the black cloak of "Patriotism."

From Palestine to Africa to South America, our quest for global economic domination kills, sickens, maims or oppresses people on a daily basis and about 25,000 children per day die of starvation. I am not okay with these facts and I am not proud of my country.

I will spend my reflective time on MD to mourn not only the deaths of so many people all over the world due to war, but mourn the fact that they are the unseen and uncared for victims of US Empire.