Sunday, October 4, 2009

Justice Sonia Sotomayor - Trial by Fire

President Barack Obama and Justice Sonia Sotomayor portrayed as gangbangers on   They got his hair wrong!

I have been bouyed by the ascendance of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court. I never expected to see a Latina on the court in my lifetime; maybe gazing down from heaven but not before. 

I have a law school degree but I didn't practice law. My experiences as an intern and the time demands when I entered a practice quickly made me realize that I really didn't want to be a lawyer. My daughter was an infant then and nothing could make me stay at work beyond my eight hours. But it was also that I hated many things about the last firm I worked at, among them, the lawyers who took advantage of their working-class clientele and spent most of their time on the phone discussing their investments; the cutthroat competition, and the exploitation of the all-Latina staff.  Moreover, the neighborhood scared me.  When I came to work one morning and walked past the corner phone booth which was covered with blood from a weekend altercation, I nearly fainted.

They had hired me because I was bilingual but when I translated carefully--because legalese is not the easiest jargon make understandable to working-class clients--they complained because I didn't do the instant and slapdash translations they had come to expect from their clerical staff.

The day I quit was one of the happiest days of my life. I had dreamed of being a judge but I'd have to be a lawyer first and I just didn't have what it takes. I closed the door and walked away; several years later, I found myself in graduate school, studying history, but that's another story. 

When Judge Sotomayor was nominated, I wrote articles in support of her and when she was confirmed, I prepared a public presentation on her career and nomination. Among the things I found in researching her career were almost 300 cartoons and photoshopped pictures of her, most of them criticizing her nomination; most of them caricaturing her in the most racist and sexist terms, such as the one above. By the time I was done, I felt beaten-up just looking at the hatred pouring out at her. How she withstood the barrage is beyond me. It is disheartening when an occasion such as her nomination gives the racists and sexists an excuse to crawl out from under the rocks where they've been hiding. 

I presented my talk during our university's "Diversity Week." In part, I wanted to talk about some of the nuts and bolts of the legal system; things that non-lawyers might not understand. I wanted to show the differences between the federal and states' systems; how a circuit court judge is only one of three on a panel of judges; how only about 80-90 cases of the 7000 sent to the court are heard by the court.

I also wanted to talk about Judge Sotomayor's nomination itself and to go beyond the quick glimpses of her life as offered up in the press to talk about what her record had been; how many cases are reviewed by the circuit court that she had come from, and how cases came to be heard by the Supreme Court. Most people would not have the patience to sit and sift through thousands of drawings and pictures to cull such a collection but I wanted people to see, in concrete terms, the racism and sexism directed at her. So I set up a slide show of the 300 cartoons and images to be screened as the audience came into the auditorium to be seated. It's one thing to hear or read about them; it's another thing to see each image, after image, after hateful image.

The slide show was very effective; as I waited to be introduced, I could hear the gasps from the audience as they watched the slides. 

Most of the people who talked to me afterwards said they had no idea of how the system worked. Social studies classes, even in good schools, stop short of explaining these fundamental functions. Civic education never gets to the Supreme Court yet the decisions made there affect all of us. Maybe it's considered too complicated for high school students to understand but if they can be made to understand calculus, they can get a rudimentary understanding of the legal system.

Misinformation about the courts allows demagogues to persuade an ignorant public that the Supreme Court is hijacking the law instead of actually showing how the judiciary checks the executive and legislative branches of government. I was very happy with the way the talk went. 

The morning after my talk, I exhausted but relieved to be done with it. I was dragging a bit as I went to teach my classes. My get up and go isn't what it used to be! Stopping at my mailbox, I saw an envelope from The United States Supreme Court. I had written a congratulatory note to Justice Sotomayor and sent the articles I'd written in support of her. I was giddy as I opened it. She thanked me for the articles and my good wishes. It made my day! We chose different lives but we're always happy to learn that people understand our journey.                      (873) 

No comments:

Post a Comment