Sotomayor's Discriminating Defense

President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, has been deservedly criticized for her stated belief that minority judges make better decisions than “white males” because of their race, gender, ethnicity, and life experiences. The remark, repeated by Sotomayor in near identical form in speech after speech, has raised questions about her ability to be fair and impartial on the bench.

Surprisingly less criticized has been Sotomayor’s defense of her membership in an exclusive women’s club, The Belizean Grove.  A little over two weeks ago, Sotomayor responded to questions from Senators about the group with an answer that made even her champions at the New York Times blush.  Sotomayor said that her membership in the all-female group was appropriate because the group did not “invidiously discriminate” against men.

“I am a member of the Belizean Grove, a private organization of female professionals from the profit, nonprofit and social sectors.  The organization does not invidiously discriminate on the basis of sex. Men are involved in its activities — they participate in trips, host events and speak at functions — but to the best of my knowledge, a man has never asked to be considered for membership.”

The Times pointed out that the group’s own website does not agree with Sotomayor’s characterization, describing the group as a, “constellation of influential women,” and seemingly containing no mention of any roles for men.  Like her explanation of her racial comments, Sotomayor’s defense of her membership raises more questions than answers.

Those questions could be fertile ground for Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee to plow at Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, which begin next Monday.  According to the group, The Belizean Grove’s members strive to form “mutually-beneficial relationships.” Republicans should pursue the notion that a sitting federal judge has no business belonging to such a group.

Senators might ask the nominee just how, if at all, members of the group could have expected to benefit from her membership.  Did Sotomayor perform any favors for her sister members in her professional capacity as a supposedly impartial judge?  Did she hear cases in which members of the group, their businesses, or their employers had an interest?  Did she recuse herself from any case in which a member of the group had an interest?  Why or why not?

Sotomayor’s membership in the group, even if it resulted in no tangible benefit to her fellow members, is a shocking case of poor professional judgment.  The fact that, her interpretation notwithstanding, the group clearly discriminates on the basis of sex is bad enough.  But for a federal judge to give the appearance that she is seeking to benefit from her position should be disqualifying.  To paraphrase a famous alleged federal office broker, it is as if Judge Sotomayor believed that a federal judgeship is a valuable thing, and she was determined to make the most of it.

The Sotomayor nomination has largely fallen off the radar screen for the mainstream press.  Even the Supreme Court’s reversal of her decision in Ricci v. DeStefano this week received only passing mentions and not very much detailed analysis of her original decision.  The lull in coverage has served Sotomayor’s interest, as the public has not been exposed to a daily drumbeat of criticism of her nomination.  It will be up to Republicans then to give her a thorough examination at her conformation hearings.  Sotomayor’s Belizean Grove membership, her inability to recognize the discriminatory nature of the group’s membership policy, and the potential for conflict between her membership and her professional duties should all be explored in detail.