Friday, August 7, 2009

Second Hispanic SCOTUS justice

I was not surprised to see on TV last night and in the papers this morning that Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, by a vote of 68-31.

Sotomayor is the first Latina on the SCOTUS, but I was surprised to see continuing use of the assertion that she is the “first Hispanic.”
According to Wikipedia (sorry I’m in a hurry), Sotomayor was born in New York City of Puerto Rican descent. Benjamin Cardozo (SCOTUS justice from 1932-1938) was born in New York City of Portuguese descent, and even a majority of readers of the Daily Kos (a well-known leftwing blog) said Cardozo was “the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court”.

Cardozo obviously was first, but was he “Hispanic”? The arguments against such a claim seem to be:

  • Portuguese is not Hispanic
  • He counted as Jewish and thus doesn’t count as Hispanic.
  • His parents came over a long time ago.
  • He (or his family or Portuguese-Americans) are/were not part of the Hispanic community.
From an objective standpoint, it seems like only the first should count. While “Hispanic” is a mushy term, here is the Wikipedia definition:
Hispanic (Spanish: hispano, hispánico) is a term that historically denoted a relationship to the ancient Hispania (geographically coinciding with the Iberian Peninsula). During the modern era, it took on a more limited meaning, relating to the contemporary nation of Spain.

Still more recently, the term is used to describe the culture and people of countries formerly ruled by Spain, usually with a majority of the population having some ancestry of Spanish origin and speaking the Spanish language.
Other definitions make reference to “Latin America,” which would include Portuguese-speaking Brazil but not the Spain that created the term Hispania. (What about Latin American residents with no Spanish blood, e.g. German-Argentinians?)

Euguene Volokh used legal definitions of “Hispanic” and concluded:
There's no doubt that many Hispanics might see Judge Sotomayor as one of them in a way that they don't see Justice Cardozo as one of them. There's nothing "incorrect" about that; it's a matter of felt shared identity, which is defined by actual practices and not by scientific or often even legal definitions. But if one does look at legal attempts to try to capture Hispanic identity as a legal category, Justice Cardozo might well have qualified (which may say more about the weakness of such legal attempts than about anything else).
People arguing for a Hispanic political identity don’t want to count Cardozo, but is that because he’s not legitimate, or because it’s important for their modern-day political goals to count Sotomayor as “first”?

No comments: