07/03/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor -- Can it Be a Teachable Moment?

President Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court has sparked a heated and, at times, ugly debate. The worst aspects of the debate are most evident on cable TV talk shows and the web, but it is only a matter of time before some Senator makes a statement that is just as hateful as those made already by Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Tom Tancredo and others seeking headlines and audience share.

Regardless, barring some new and horribly damaging revelation, Judge Sotomayor will almost certainly be confirmed by the Senate. Between now and then, we can hope that the confirmation process will be intense, spirited, and enlightening, and that she -- and we -- will be spared the cheap, the tawdry, and the demagogic. We can hope, but we also should strive to make it so.

While many Americans -- on the left and on the right -- are disturbed by the antics and tactics being employed by Judge Sotomayor's most rabid critics, it would be worth our while to take a deep breath and think more deeply about what is going on and why. Perhaps this nomination and the debate over it can become a "teachable moment."

Through the process, maybe we can agree that "identity politics" (whereby one's gender, sexual preference, race or ethnicity explains and justifies every vote and every policy decision), are at once understandable and unfortunate.

Perhaps we can also agree that each of us, in our attitudes and our behaviors, reflects the sum of our existence -- our upbringing, our education, our work experiences and, yes, our gender, ethnicity, race, sexual identity, and economic circumstance. Each of us is also shaped by our successes and our failures. Judge Sotomayor is an aggregate of those ingredients -- as are her critics and opponents, as are all of us. Those elements affect our beliefs and our decisions, but they do not determine them -- that's why we have a brain, and why we are taught and encouraged to use it.

Maybe some Democrats can be persuaded to reflect on how our own party's tactics (and those of allied groups), in opposition to Judge Robert Bork's nomination for the Supreme Court in 1987 have contaminated the judicial nomination and confirmation process ever since. No one can say with certainty how Robert Bork would have turned out as a Supreme Court Justice, whether his impact or influence would have been positive, negative or pivotal. Yet it is clear that the fight to reject his nomination was waged in a manner that injected a level of toxicity to the confirmation process that continues to plague it.

Maybe some Republicans can be encouraged to reject the "we had to destroy the village to save it" mentality that has characterized Newt Gingrich's career, and which now appears to be inscribed in his party's catechism. Opposition to a big or overly intrusive government is not only healthy in our representative democracy, it is necessary. Thoughtful questioning of any political orthodoxy is legitimate, and it should be welcomed. But Mr. Gingrich's rhetoric, which is seldom measured, is growing increasingly harsh and reckless. It might be good for him to be sent for a "time out" to have a moment to think about the consequences of his words on our political institutions.

Finally, maybe both parties and their respective constituencies (especially the organized and well-funded ones) can pause to examine the corrosive effects that political-style campaigns -- for and against -- judicial nominations may be having on our legal system and on those charged with administering it. By far one of the most alarming trends was highlighted in a recent article in The Washington Post, which reported that, "Threats against the nation's judges and prosecutors have sharply increased, prompting hundreds to get 24-hour protection from armed U.S. marshals."

Can we draw a straight line linking cause and effect between nomination battles and violent threats? No, not yet. But can over-heated rhetoric and campaigns that demonize judicial nominees sometimes lead to unintended consequences? The possibility is not out of the question.

Let us hope, naive as it may seem, that the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor and the debate over her confirmation will make us a better nation, not a diminished and further polarized one. It doesn't seem to be too much to ask of our political leaders, be they in or out of elective office.