Media and the Law

Media Reactions to Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor and her links to Affirmative Action

Justice Sonia Sotomayor personifies the American Dream: a child of Puerto Rican ancestry raised in the public housing projects of the Bronx in New York City. Aside from socioeconomic challenges, Sotomayor’s father died while she was only nine-years-old and her mother was left to raise her children alone. Sotomayor’s mother instilled educational values in young Sonia, so from an early age Sonia pushed herself in her studies in order to excel and go on to attend some of the best schools in the United States: Princeton University where she graduated summa cum laude, and later, Yale Law School (whitehouse.gov).

When she was nominated in 2009 for the United States Supreme Court, the highest judicial body in the nation, Sotomayor had worked as an attorney and judge for over 30 years.  Highly regarded by her colleagues, New York City District Attorney Morgenthau described Sotomayor as an "able champion of the law" who would be "highly qualified for any position in which wisdom, intelligence, collegiality and good character could be assets."(whitehouse.gov).

Despite a long and successful career in law, Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court has been fraught with conflict. Many U.S. Republican senators and other conservative political leaders disagreed with the nomination of Sotomayor because they found many of her past interviews, lectures, organizational affiliations and court rulings to show a preferential bias for people of color, often at the expense of white men. Many have called Sotomayor a "racist," including conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and Republican leader and former U.S. House Representative Tom Tancredo, for her membership in the Latino advocacy group The National Council of La Raza (Hispanic Business).

Additionally, Sotomayor was taken to task by Republicans during Supreme Court confirmation hearings before the U.S. Senate for stating: "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" in a number of her speeches from 1994 to 2001. The Republican argument against Sotomayor was that such language is indicative of a personal prejudice against white men that would certainly inhibit her ability to judge fairly in a court of law (CNN.com).

However, some of the most scathing criticisms of Sotomayor deal with her advocacy of Affirmative Action policies. Affirmative Action describes policies to provide equal access and opportunity in education and the workplace for all people. These policies began to be established in the United States as early as the 1960s in response to the crippling, but socially accepted discrimination that oppressed people of color and women in the U.S. for centuries. Affirmative Action has undergone a number of legal changes since the 1960s and has even been eradicated for college admissions in several states. A debate regarding the necessity of Affirmative Action in 21st century America continues to rage.  Some believe there are continued disparities in society between men and women, whites and non-whites, and wealthy versus poor – therefore government programs and protections must be in place to encourage equal opportunity. Others believe that racial and gender-based discrimination are no longer serious problems in American society and that continuing Affirmative Action only promotes and shows racial/gender preference for those who may be undeserving and/or less qualified at the expense of those who are more qualified but may happen to be white and male. Sotomayor’s stance is reflective of the first argument, while many political conservatives support the latter argument.

Sotomayor is a self-described "perfect affirmative action baby" as stated in a video dating back to the 1990s that resurfaced during Supreme Court confirmation hearings.  She credits the policies for her admittance to Ivy League universities despite not having the most competitive grades and test scores. However, Sotomayor also argues that U.S. educational testing often holds “cultural biases” that hamper the scores of students of color when compared to their white counterparts. Many conservatives saw this as an indication that Sotomayor was unqualified to attend Ivy League schools and probably was given preferential treatment due to race and sex when obtaining employment as a lawyer and later a judge (Fox News).

Reporting on Affirmative Action in regards to the nomination of Sotomayor has reinvigorated public debate on the topic and continues to garner media attention. However, much of the media coverage on Affirmative Action has been capturing the heated debates between those for and against the policies. Major television media sources such as Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC have not provided their audiences with a working knowledge of the laws, facts, and history of Affirmative Action in the United States; rather, they have provided a platform for media pundits to vent publicly on this topic - which has led to the nation-wide dissemination of inaccuracies on Affirmative Action. Some of these inaccuracies include treating Affirmative Action as a strictly racial-based policy and making claims such as Affirmative Action imposes a system of quotas. Some of the most vocal anti-Affirmative Action broadcasters on cable television news networks include Pat Buchanan on MSNBC and Sean Hannity on Fox News. Both of these pundits have indicated a strong belief that Sonia Sotomayor is a “reverse racist” and that Affirmative Action shows preference for people of color in hiring and education admissions, at the expense of qualified white men (see YouTube videos below of Buchanan/Maddow interview on MSNBC). While these arguments have some merit, they are based largely on emotion and Affirmative Action myths rather than facts.