Bench Memos

Sotomayor’s Mind-Numbing Speeches

I have just come up for air from the stifling smog of banality generated by the collected speeches of Sonia Sotomayor.  They can be seen as the attachments to Question 12d on this page set up by the Senate Judiciary Committee, but let me hasten to add that I have wasted my morning on reading them so you don’t have to.

I was interested in part in whether I was right to speculate yesterday that maybe her best-known speech, 2001’s “A Latina Judge’s Voice,” was partly “unscripted” or ab-libbed, since that might explain the occasionally bad writing in its published form.  It could not have been wholly off-the-cuff, of course, with its recitation of statistics and its quotations from a few sources–but those might have been on notecards.  Having gone through virtually all the speeches on the Senate website, I can say that what the Berkeley La Raza Law Journal published was almost certainly based on a prepared text.  I say that for a couple of reasons.

First, Judge Sotomayor’s speeches all display mediocre writing, and frequently exhibit errors of various kinds, and the copies of them that have been made public are in most cases quite obviously her own originals.  She said of herself as long ago as 1994 that “I consider myself merely an average writer,” and as recently as 2007 that “[w]riting remains a challenge for me even today . . . I am not a natural writer.”  This is a salutary self-awareness, because her speeches are bad–uniformly boring, almost invariably devoid of actual ideas, and completely forgettable.  I am not sure she has ever uttered an interesting thought off the bench–unless you count her celebration of the “wise Latina,” which is interesting only to the pathologist of confused identity politics.

Second, Sotomayor’s speeches are mind-numbingly repetitious when read in series.  This may seem an unfair comment; each one was presumably a first-time listening experience for her audience (one can hope, anyway).  But reading them in series, I began quietly to mutter to the speaker, “Get some new material.  Aren’t you boring yourself?”  She didn’t just once deliver the line “I became a Latina by the way I love and the way I live my life”; she delivered it easily a dozen times to (mostly Hispanic) audiences over the course of ten years or so.  And the repetition allows us to see the same little mistakes over and over.  To take just two: Sotomayor has a fond memory from her childhood of the Mexican comedian Cantinflas, but she never once spells his name correctly in at least a half dozen speeches (after which I stopped counting).  And she likes relating how the city girl came to Princeton and had never heard a cricket before, and how she imagined it looked like “Jimmy the Cricket” from the Disney movie Pinocchio (once she called him “Jiminy the Cricket,” which gets a little closer, but in subsequent speeches she went back to Jimmy).  Such repeated mistakes over a period of years provide us with some assurance that all the errors we see are her own, and not transcription errors from audio recordings.  So when she refers to “Anthony Scalia” for “Antonin” or “Thurmond Marshall” for “Thurgood,” we can be pretty sure that’s Sotomayor’s own mistake.

I can also confirm what others have observed about the notorious “wise Latina” speech at Berkeley: that it was not an isolated instance of such an argument against traditional notions of judicial impartiality. 

Sotomayor’s speeches for the most part fall into three large categories: 1) celebrations of her Latina background, combined with exhortations to strive as she has done, delivered to young Hispanic audiences; 2) encouragement to law students to take up pro bono work and benefit their communities; and 3) brief descriptive accounts of the work of the courts on which she has served, trial and appellate.  In the first category there are mostly harmless hurrahs for being Hispanic or Latino or Puerto Rican or whatever.  Many of these contain a variant of this paragraph from 1998:

America has a deeply confused image of itself that is a perpetual source of tension.  We are a nation that takes pride in our ethnic diversity, recognizing its importance in shaping our society and in adding richness to its existence.  Yet, we simultaneously insist that we can and must function and live in a race- and color-blind way that ignores those very differences that in other contexts we laud.  That tension between the melting pot and the salad bowl, to borrow recently popular metaphors in New York, is being hotly debated today in national discussions about affirmative action.  This tension leads many of us to struggle with maintaining and promoting our cultural and ethnic identities in a society which is often ambivalent about how to deal with its differences.

Nothing here, without more, should cause anyone to conclude that Sotomayor is for race-consciousness in judging.  The paragraph is almost studiously non-committal and merely descriptive, except for its initial characterization of the “tension” between diversity and colorblind equality as a mark of a country that has a “deeply confused image of itself.”  Lots of Americans could easily explain to Judge Sotomayor how this is no source of confusion at all.

But then, overlapping with all these mostly boring celebrations of the joys of being a Latina, we find the speeches that do indicate something about Sotomayor’s view of judging.  The Berkeley La Raza speech, given in October 2001, was given again in almost identical form on February 26, 2002, and October 22, 2003.  And an earlier version, containing much of the same material but not yet polished into its best-known form, was given on March 17, 1994 in Puerto Rico, on the topic of “Women in the Judiciary.”  Because of that topic and the audience listening to the speech, Sotomayor referred to a “wise woman with the richness of her experiences” rather than a “wise Latina.”  But the essentials of the speeches we know from 2001 and later were all there: the disagreement with Judge Miriam Cedarbaum’s argument for judicial neutrality, the expectation that better judging will come from women and minorities because they are women and minorities, and the plumping for more appointments of Hispanic judges in particular.

In sum, we can say that Judge Sotomayor has, with few exceptions, given just three or four speeches to public audiences in her career–the same three or four, over and over and over.  One of her repeated themes is on the virtue of race-conscious and sex-conscious bias in judging.  Like her other themes, this one cannot be “walked back” by White House claims that she “misspoke” or could have made her point differently.  She is, on the evidence of her speeches, a great self-absorbed bore, a mediocrity as a writer, and a polished practitioner of identity politics.