Is Sotomayor Playing the Race Card?

Like a stopped clock that is accurate twice a day, Rush Limbaugh is sometimes actually funny.

After Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor tripped and broke her ankle Monday, Limbaugh said: “I hope she can find a wise Latina doctor to set that ankle, as opposed to an average white doctor, because the wise Latina doctor has much richer experience with broken ankles.”

Oh, come on. That is funny. Or at least reasonably clever, Sotomayor having said in 2001: “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.”

I have defended Sotomayor for making that statement, while the White House has not. “I’m sure she would have restated it,” President Barack Obama said shortly after the storm broke over Sotomayor’s remarks.

So now Sotomayor has been making — limping, actually — the rounds on Capitol Hill assuring senators that what she really meant to say was that “there is only one law” and that “ultimately and completely” she would follow that law.

But you can see why Democrats are nervous. Roland Burris, a political hack, muscled his way into the U.S. Senate by nakedly playing the race card, and now everybody is jumpy about any comments that seem to indicate one race should be favored over another. (Unless it is white people being favored, in which case there is rarely a controversy.)

Burris, whose main claim to fame was that in 16 years of holding public office in Illinois he had not been indicted even once, was appointed to the U.S. Senate by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who a few weeks earlier had been led away in handcuffs for trying to sell that Senate seat.

Initially, the White House and the Democratic leadership of the Senate wanted to delay Burris’ appointment until Blagojevich was impeached (an event that occurred on Jan. 8 by a 114-1 vote of the Illinois House of Representatives) so that the new, untainted governor of Illinois could fill the seat.

But Team Burris quickly moved into action. Rep. Bobby Rush, a Democrat from the South Side of Chicago, dared the Senate to deny a black man the seat that had been held by Barack Obama. “There are no African-Americans in the Senate, and I don’t think that anyone, any U.S. senator who is sitting right now, would want to go on record to deny one African-American from being seated in the U.S. Senate,” Rush said. “I don’t think they want to go on record doing that.”

After Burris stood outside the Senate in the rain after being rebuffed from taking his seat on Jan. 6, Rush went on “Hardball With Chris Matthews” and said, “It reminded me of the dogs being sicced on children in Birmingham, Ala. That’s what it reminded me of.”

With that, opposition to the quick seating of Burris collapsed. After going back to Illinois and swearing under oath that he had never tried to buy the Senate seat from Blagojevich, Burris returned to Washington and was sworn in as the junior senator from Illinois.

All has not gone well, however. Two weeks ago, the transcript of a secretly recorded phone call between Burris and the brother of Blagojevich was released in federal court. In the phone call, Burris offers to write a check to the Rod Blagojevich campaign and says, “I’m very much interested in, in trying to replace Obama, OK.”

The Senate Ethics Committee is looking into all of this, but some senators are now nervous and angry. They folded in the face of the race card when it came to Burris, but now some are aflame over what they see as Sonia Sotomayor’s playing of the same card.

“We need to know, for example, whether she’s going to be a justice for all of us or just a justice for a few of us,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of the Judiciary Committee, said on “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said on “Meet the Press” with David Gregory that while he would not use the word “racist” to describe Sotomayor, “I think that she is a person who believes that her background can influence her decision. That’s what troubles me.”

The Democrats are sticking with Sotomayor, however. In what certainly must be her most poetic defense, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wrote an op-ed piece recently in The Miami Herald that began: “Some slivers of my past: a dust storm. A one-room schoolhouse. The teacher who gave me boxing gloves.”

Reid writes that all those things shaped his life, just as Sotomayor’s life “as a Latina” shaped hers. He says that as he talked to Sotomayor recently, he saw a “reflection of myself and of the fabric of this country.”

“I realized that I was sitting across from a person who took hardship and turned it into the anvil that shaped her character,” Reid says. “She is the quintessential American story. How is this a detriment to the highest court in the land?”

A good question. And, as her nomination hearings begin July 13, one that is sure to be asked repeatedly.

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