Tuesday, May 26, 2009

First Hispanic Justice?

Apparently being Portuguese doesn't count.

Obama names Sonia Sotomayor 1st Hispanic Supreme Court justice


This sort of story has been all over the news since President Obama announced the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to be an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.


The Houston Chronicle makes the claim here, ABC News here, USA Today here, and the New York Times here. There are countless others too, these are just the first ones I looked up.

Now while I will concede that Judge Sotomayor nomination does represent a certain historic milestone (if only in the sense that it represents the triumph of race/gender based politics in its most cynical form), I'm not sure I agree she will be the first Hispanic Justice-assuming of course that she's confirmed.

The word Hispanic derives from the Latin Hispania which was a geographic term used to describe the entire Iberian Peninsula (modern Portugal, Spain, Andorra, and Gibraltar). More recently the term Hispanic has come to have a more limited meaning, focusing on Spanish language and culture both in Spain and her former colonial empire. A case can be made however that Portugal (and by extension her former colonies) be included in the Hispanic world. The histories of the two nations are deeply intertwined and from 1580-1640 they were in fact a single country.

Furthermore, to the extent that Hispanic is a linguistic term Spanish and Portuguese are quite closely related. While they are definitely distinct languages they have more in common with each other than they do with say...French or Italian.

If you're wondering where this is going you're not alone. The wife had to listen to me ranting about this tonight, " What does any of that have to do with the Supreme Court" she patiently asked. "Well, Justice Cardozo springs to mind" I replied.

For those of us who have gone through that post-baccalaureate boot camp known as law school, Benjamin N. Cardozo was a breath of fresh air. A lot of what law student do is simply read old appellate decisions. Most are incredibly boring and not very illuminating as to where the law stands (anybody wanna try to explain the Lemon Test without consulting Gilbert's?). Cardozo was quite different. His writing is clear and concise and occasionally funny. His description of the Palsgraf case sticks with me to this day.

Anyway, Cardozo who served on the Supreme Court from 1932-1938, was Portuguese...and Jewish...and possibly homosexual...and was appointed to the court by a Republican President (Herbert Hoover) who disagreed with him but thought he was a damn fine judge. Hard to imagine someone like him being appointed today, and that's a shame.

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