Sotomayor, Saenz, and the Vilification of Latino Civil Rights Organizations
posted by Kevin Johnson
At long last, the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings begin tomorrow. It should be interesting but do not expect high drama. No “smoking gun” demonstrating Judge Sotomayor’s “judicial activism” has been uncovered for Republicans to wave. Instead, the opposition is trying to bring in some drama with the testimony of Frank Ricci and Ben Vargas, a Puerto Rican, two plaintiffs in the New Haven firefighters case.
To me, one of the amazing parts of the confirmation process has been the treatment afforded relatively mainstream Latino civil rights organizations that Judge Sotomayor had affiliations with, National Council for La Raza and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (now known as Latino Justice). Both have been nothing less than tarred and feathered for in effect being racist and, at least according to former member of Congress (and anti-immigrant zealot) Tom Tancredo in talking about NCLR, the Latino equivalent of the KKK. As Sherrilyn Ifill has written, the making of such wild accusations by mainstream politicians reveals how vulnerable Latinos are in U.S. society. Could anyone see similar claims made against the NAACP Inc. Fund?
Judge Sotomayor’s confirmation seems assured. However, this is not the first time that affiliations with a Latino civil rights groups were used to try to damage one of President Obama’s nominees. Earlier this year, the administration declined to appoint Tom Saenz, formerly the head of litigation at the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund (MALDEF), to head the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division reportedly because of his cutting edge (and successful) litigation at MALDEF to protect the rights of immigrants and day laborers. As the N.Y. Times opined, Saenz would have been an excellent head of the Civil Rights Division and it was a shame for the nomination to be scuttled because of his civil rights litigation at MALDEF.
As a member of the board of directors of MALDEF, I was sad to see MALDEF’s good llitigation work be used to torpedo a nomination for an extremely important civil rights post. I am proud to be on the board of an organization that is bringing litigation seeking to protect the rights of Latinos in employment, voting, immigration, education, and housing. It is groups like MALDEF that call for action in cases like the hate killing of Luis Ramirez in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania last year.
Hopefully, the smear tactics that we saw in the Saenz nomination and early on in the Sotomayor nomination, will not reappear in the future. Indeed, the quick retreat of mainstream Republicans from the early attacks on Judge Sotomayor suggest that some are recognizing the dangers of alienating the Latino vote. However, I will feel better when groups like MALDEF, Latino Justice, and National Council for La Raza are viewed as positive contributors to civil rights and justice in U.S. society, rather than vilified as racist, otherwise outside the mainstream, and part of the problem.