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The GOP's 'Wise Latina' Problem

09/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As expected, Judge Sonia Sotomayor was easily confirmed to the Supreme Court. Also as expected, she received unanimous support from Democrats and only a smattering of votes from Republicans.

But ultimately the vote count had less to do with Sonia Sotomayor and more with the unseemly political machinations of the GOP.

President Obama made a good and historic choice when he nominated Sotomayor. He picked a brilliant jurist, whose impeccable, narrowly tailored jurisprudence put her, as several Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee acknowledged, squarely within the mainstream of legal thought.

The only things "out of the mainstream" about Sotomayor are her gender, her ethnicity, and her remarkable life story. On a court in which 96% of the previous justices have been white men, the arrival of the first Hispanic and third woman is very big, and very good, news.

But despite Sotomayor's obvious qualifications, a majority of GOP senators went out of their way to invent reasons to oppose her confirmation. Ignoring mountains of decisions that yielded nothing but positive reviews, senators stretched and strained to make an issue of the oft repeated "wise Latina comments," then did everything but stick their fingers in their ears as Sotomayor explained herself over and over again.

Senators also attempted to justify their opposition by making the over-the-top claim that Judge Sotomayor is hostile to the rights of gun owners.

The major decision Sotomayor's opponents rely on is Maloney v. Cuomo, in which her panel followed Second Circuit and Supreme Court precedent and found that New York's ban on nunchucks (the weapon wielded most famously by a ninja turtle) was constitutionally permissible. The panel was simply acknowledging what arch conservative Justice Antonin Scalia had already pointed out -- under Supreme Court precedent the Second Amendment only applies to protections against infringement by the federal government. Two leading lights of conservative legal thought, Judges Frank Easterbook and Richard Posner, reached an identical conclusion in a similar case. As Sotomayor said at her hearing, and as a matter of judicial restraint, the Supreme Court and not the lower courts should decide whether Second Amendment protections apply to the states.

The Right Wing never expressed any disapproval, much less outrage, over the statements and rulings by Scalia, Easterbrook, Posner, and other conservatives which concur with Sotomayor's view. This fact underscores how disingenuous the attacks by the NRA and its allies have been. They loudly and baselessly opposed her nomination, but when Chief Justice John Roberts refused to answer gun-related questions and Justice Samuel Alito wasn't asked about guns at all, they were silent.

Legally, there's no question that Sotomayor's decision was appropriate, but politically, well, any bludgeon will do in a pinch. Not all Republican senators have chosen to play politics with the nomination of the first Hispanic to the Supreme Court, but with the NRA's help, the majority of GOP senators worked itself into knots to provide a rationale for a deeply unprincipled stand.

I am confident that history will judge harshly those who have worked so hard to oppose this historic nominee. Just as it's easy to see now that Justices Thurgood Marshall and Louis Brandeis faced unfair obstacles as the first African American and Jewish nominees, it won't be difficult to see what Sotomayor was up against as the first Hispanic nominee.

But the GOP won't have to wait for history to get a wake-up call about their behavior. Americans are increasingly getting fed up with baseless ideological attacks. Justice Sotomayor will soon hire clerks and move into her chambers just across the street from the Capitol. She is likely to sit on the Supreme Court for many years, even decades, to come, and no one should be surprised if during the next few years she can watch from her window as voters send her a new and different set of neighbors in the Capitol building across the way.

Dolores Huerta is co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America and a longtime board member of People For the American Way.