Justice Sotomayor thrust into battle over Latino vote
Democrats say that Mitt Romney’s attacks on Sotomayor could drive away Latino voters, a charge that Romney’s camp calls “dishonest.” (Flickr: White House)
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has emerged as a central character in the battle over the Latino vote in this election.
As a member of the high court, Sotomayor has not done any campaigning of her own. But she’s been featured in advertising and campaign literature from Republicans and Democrats alike. To Republicans, Sotomayor, the first Latina justice, is a symbol of President Obama’s dangerous philosophy of judicial activism. But to Democrats, those types of attacks are example 1A of how Republicans are alienating Latino voters.
Republican scrutiny of Sotomayor has become a significant element on Mitt Romney’s attacks against his chief rival, Rick Santorum. In radio, television, and web ads over the past several weeks, the Romney campaign has criticized Santorum for voting as a senator to confirm her to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in 1998 (for background on that vote, click here).
“Is Rick Santorum ready to be president? He’s never run a business. He’s never run a state,” reads the script from a Romney ad that aired in Michigan. “A Washington politician who proudly voted for the Bridge to Nowhere and for liberal Judge Sotomayor. Santorum opposed creating e-verify, a conservative reform to clear up illegal immigration.”
And Romney’s most recent radio ad in Ohio features prominent conservative lawyer Jay Sekulow, who says that only Romney, not Santorum, can be trusted to appoint conservative justices to lifetime terms on the Supreme Court should seats open up beyond 2012.
“Rick Santorum voted for the confirmation of Judge Sotomayor to the court of appeals, which put her on the path to the Supreme Court. Twenty-nine of his Republican colleagues voted against her,” says Sekulow. “With Mitt Romney, we know what kind of judges we will get.”
Romney, however, wasn’t the first GOP presidential hopeful to invoke Sotomayor on the campaign trail. In a prime example of his gaffe-prone nature during the 2012 primary, former candidate Rick Perry called her “Montemayor” while attacking President Obama for appointing “activist judges.”
But with Perry out of the race, Democrats have gone on the offensive against Romney, the front runner to capture the Republican nomination, saying that his critiques of Sotomayor will alienate Latino voters, the nation’s fastest-growing voting group, come election time.
In a press release Monday, DNC Senior Advisor for Hispanic Affairs Juan Sepúlveda accused Romney of “pander[ing] to the extremes of his party” by using Sotomayor in his ads, citing the fact that nine Republican senators voted to confirm Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. That group includes Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, who recently endorsed Romney.
“Unfortunately, this is not Romney’s first attack on Sotomayor. It’s clear that, in Justice Sotomayor, Mitt Romney does not see a role model, but a political pawn that he can attack at will if it gets him a vote,” said Sepúlveda.
In particular, Democrats and some political observers believe that Sotomayor’s popularity with Latinos, especially among Puerto Rican voters, could backfire against Romney in the key swing state of Florida since the justice is the daughter of Puerto Rican parents.
“Mitt Romney has shown time and again that he is after the Tea Party vote, not the Latino vote, and with each attack he locks himself more to his extreme positions. Hispanics are listening, and Mitt Romney’s attacks will not going unnoticed,” added Sepúlveda.
Romney spokesman Albert Martinez called the Democrats’ attacks “dishonest smears” and said that it’s fair game to criticize Sotomayor as a liberal justice and Santorum for voting for her.
“This attack says a lot about how President Obama views the Hispanic community, as just another group of Americans he can pander to and divide for political gain,” Martinez said in a statement to Univision News.
Although the economy and immigration are the dominant issue for Latino voters, judicial philosophy has long been an important staple of presidential campaigns. On top of that, the debate over Sotomayor has for years been racially tinged, something that Democrats believe could be seen by Latinos as a sign of Republican disrespect.
The 2009 debate over her confirmation was highly politicized and Republicans keyed in on a refrain that she frequently used in speeches, that her background as a Latina growing up in The Bronx helped her have a better-informed judicial philosophy.
“I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would, more often than not, reach a better conclusion,” she would say.
Sotomayor eventually backtracked on that line, but not before some Republican senators expressed concern that she would make her decisions on the basis of her ethnic heritage, and not the law. Some in the GOP went even further.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, now a presidential candidate, called Sotomayor “racist” on Twitter and demanded that she withdraw her nomination. He later said he regretted his choice of words after criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike.