AMONG the informational tidbits included in the White House biography of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor is this: She calls her mother every day.
And this: As a girl growing up in a housing project in the South Bronx, Nancy Drew novels "inspired a love of reading and learning." And also: She has been diabetic since childhood.
The compelling personal story, fit for a political candidate, was only part of five pages detailing Sotomayor's stellar academic and legal qualifications, including the assertion that the federal appeals judge would "bring more federal and judicial experience to the Supreme Court than any justice in 100 years." But the savvy framing of Sotomayor's American dream story reflects the kind of "campaign" that's necessary to confirm a Supreme Court justice these days.
Supposedly, members of the U.S. Supreme Court are the very models of impartiality - at least, that's what we were taught in civics class. But the process that gets them there is among the most political exercises that we have in this country. It's a (mercifully shorter) version of an election campaign - a collection of anonymous attacks, inane charges, demagoguery bordering on racism and that perennial standby, hypocrisy.
As Barack Obama proved in his presidential campaign, he can play that game and win. That doesn't excuse the downright craziness of the process, one that has become so extreme that this time, potential nominees were attacked before one was even named.
Just as the recent presidential campaign seemed to turn on the question of flag pins and birth certificates, an early attack against the then-unknown nominee built entirely on Obama's use of the word "empathy" to describe a quality he was looking for in a justice.
Empathy? What could that mean but that Obama intended to choose a woman who followed her "feelings" (presumably like all emotional females) instead of the law as written?
Sociopaths excepted, everyone has empathy: We're sure, for example, that Chief Justice John Roberts is highly empathetic to the officers of corporations charged with discrimination or pollution. Just read his opinions.
What Obama appeared to be signaling is a desire to name a justice who had seen the "real world" effects of legal rulings, and he has that in Sotomayor.
In her remarks at the White House yesterday, Sotomayor herself provided a good definition: Her experiences, she said, provide her with an appreciation of the "variety of perspectives that present themselves in every case that I hear." Scary, huh?
But the one-size-fits-all smears mounted before Sotomayor was named yesterday were not the only political hit she took. She also sustained a pre-emptive strike apparently designed to prevent her from being nominated. It came, not from conservatives, but from alleged liberal scholars granted anonymity by The New Republic magazine to trash Sotomayor's intelligence. Readers couldn't assess if the attackers had something to gain by tarnishing Sotomayor's reputation - the better to recycle them in confirmation hearings.