What Is The "National Origin" of Apple Pie?

06/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sonia Sotomayor's public statements are, like those of all recent Supreme Court nominees of both parties, being subjected to absurd hyper-scrutiny. But one statement by Sotomayor is deeply vexing, that her "national origins" impact her judging. Her national origin is American!

News accounts and cable-news shouting are depicting Sotomayor as some kind of exotic species, especially "from" Puerto Rico. Judge Sotomayor speaks of herself in these terms. But she's "from Puerto Rico" in the same sense we are all "from the Olduvai Gorge." Sotomayor was born in New York City, which means she was born a U.S. citizen. She was raised in New York City. Her parents were from Puerto Rico, but she has never lived there. For that matter, her parents were American citizens. Her national origin is American!

Some of the galimatias regarding Sotomayor's identity has to do with lack of understanding of Puerto Rico's confused legal status. But how can we speak of Sotomayor as anything other than a red-white-and-blue American? Why does she speak of herself in any other way? Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts was born in Buffalo, New York, to parents descended from Slovakians. It would be absurd if Roberts suggested his "national origin" was Slovakian or that this gave him any special status; his national origin is American. Justice Samuel Alito was born in Trenton, New Jersey, to parents descended from Italians. He sometimes talks about his Italian ancestry, but it would be absurd if Alito suggested his "national origin" was Italian or that this gave him any special status; his national origin is American. Sotomayor goes further and refers to her parents, who moved to the Bronx from Puerto Rico, as "immigrants." Puerto Rico is part of the United States!

Quick version of Puerto Rico's confused legal status: it is a self-governing colony most of whose residents are U.S. citizens who have no vote for president or representation in Congress, but also don't pay federal income taxes. Anyone born in Puerto Rico since 1941 has been a United States citizen at birth; most people born on the island between 1899 and 1940 received naturalized citizenship. You can't "emigrate" from Puerto Rico to New York, though you can move between the two places. It reflects ignorance when people make comments along the lines of "too many Puerto Ricans are being allowed into this country" -- there's even a line close to that in "West Side Story!" -- since most residents of Puerto Rico hold U.S. passports, coming and going within the nation as they please.

Maybe having Sotomayor on the Supreme Court will cause the United States and Puerto Rico finally to resolve the nutty relationship they have had since 1898. I'd say give the island a star and make it a state. Its situation regarding the mainland does not seem materially different from the situation between Hawaii and the mainland when Hawaii won its star. Statehood has been a huge boon for Hawaii, and likely would be a boon for Puerto Rico. Many residents oppose Puerto Rican statehood either because they want an independent nation, or because they want to retain most of the privileges of U.S. citizenship but not pay income taxes. Whatever the outcome of the island's status dispute, it is ridiculous for commentators to treat Sotomayor, or Sotomayor to treat herself, as a quasi-foreigner.

And this is skipping the excruciating contretemps about whether she would be the Court's first Hispanic (Benjamin Cardozo's ancestors were from Portugal, which is Iberian but not Spanish-speaking) or whether she is Hispanic (this word's only clearly agreed meaning is "someone born in Spain" -- the Census Bureau has been arguing for decades about what "Hispanic" means) or whether she is Latina. Factually she is the later, in that word's meaning of "descended from Spanish-speakers." But that meaning is so mild it hardly carries any weight -- a person descended from German-speakers would be laughed at for claiming special status as a Germana. Anyway why are we fussing with all these hollow contentions of identity politics, and why is she? The Senate should weigh her candidacy simply as that of an American jurist.

Here is the 2001 speech in which Sotomayor suggests she possesses some kind of non-American "national origin", and also in which she makes the dubious assertion that a Latina woman is better than a white male. Setting aside that it's perfectly possible to be Latina ("descended from Spanish-speakers") and white -- an example of why such identity labels are loopy, and "American" is always preferable -- the speech is learned, candid, engaging and well worth reading. Possible Supreme Court picks should be encouraged to set forth their philosophies in thoughtful speeches and writing, rather than hooted down by the political shout-show circuit for any comment beyond admiration for Thomas Jefferson. Nasty hyper-reaction to judicial statements only results in possible Supreme Court nominees who never say anything in public except empty blandishments. How is the public served by that?