Everyone seems to have an opinion about Judge Sonia Sotomayor, President Barack Obama’s newly announced nominee for the Supreme Court. ESSENCE.com talked to Harvard Law School professor and longtime mentor to the President and First Lady, Dr. Charles Ogletree, about his take on Sotomayor, her critics, and the advice he gave the President during his search.
ESSENCE.COM: Do you anticipate that there will be a major battle over Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation from Senate Republicans?
CHARLES OGLETREE: There will be a long but unsuccessful battle in the effort to malign Judge Sonia Sotomayor. She is the most qualified candidate to come up for consideration in the Supreme Court since Justice Thurgood Marshall 42 years ago. Despite the efforts to malign and mischaracterize her record, I have every confidence that she will be confirmed by the Senate this summer.
ESSENCE.COM: Right now there’s uproar by some conservatives over Sotomayor’s quote, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a White male who hasn’t lived that life.” What do you think of the criticism over this?
OGLETREE: It is downright silly to suggest that two comments by a judge during a panel discussion and a speech somehow outweigh the thousands of cases that she’s been involved in in 17 years. If you want to know a judge’s judicial philosophy, read what they write and what they say as a judge.
If you put that comment in context, it is imploring students of color in particular to realize that they have something to contribute, and they should not be ashamed of their gender, their race or their religion in competing in the larger society. It is not saying that Latinas are better, but it is saying to all the people gathered there that they bring something to the table. The time matters as well because this speech came after Ward Connerly’s very successful attack on affirmative action in California, and the number of diverse students, particular Latinas, had declined dramatically. It was a speech about courage and conviction to make a difference in the lives of those who depend on you. The reality is, once you look at the entire speech, you get a much better sense of what she was talking about and why it was so important.
ESSENCE.COM: Did you give President Obama any advice as he searched for a Supreme Court nominee?
OGLETREE: I did, and it was not advice about names and personalities. The advice was to be a Congress of one. Consult as widely as possible. Consult every point of view. But ultimately make a decision that satisfies you as President, that this is the person best qualified to achieve the goals of the country. I was no more specific than his choice reflected, that he wants someone who is young, brilliant, independent and mature enough to handle the intellectual firepower of a Supreme Court Justice. The person he selected, as well as the people I know that he is considering for future appointments, fit within those categories. So I am very confident that he is consulting widely and making decisions that he believes are right for the court right now.
ESSENCE.COM: How significant do you think race and gender are with regard to filling this position? Is diversity on the Supreme Court important to you?
OGLETREE: Race and gender are critical to the Supreme Court. We know that because we have a court that’s more than 200 years old, and we have had only two women in that history serve, and only two African-Americans in that history serve. So it’s been an important method of excluding people for centuries. I think President Obama will be mindful of the value of diversity. It has reflected already in that he is the first of 44 presidents to ever select an African-American as the attorney general of the United States. He is the first to select a woman as the solicitor general of the United States. With his nominee for the Supreme Court he has put race and gender forefront by selecting an imminently qualified candidate. And she is successful in spite of the fact that she is a person of color, not because she is a person of color. She’s a brilliant choice who happens to be a Latina, and this reflects the good judgment of President Obama.
ESSENCE.COM: After Justice David Souter announced his retirement, your name was floated around as a possible candidate for the Supreme Court nomination. Is there any truth to that?
OGLETREE: My name is always, for better or for worse, bandied around for all sorts of positions. I can’t imagine a better position than the one I have that gives me the great blessing of being able to see people like Michelle Obama and Barack Obama, and learn that they can go on from young ambitious law students to being incredibly successful public servants. So I’m not done here yet. Until I produce the next generation of Obamas, and I believe there are some already in the mix, I will continue the work here and continue to impact the court in other ways