Thursday, August 28, 2014

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor: Just Judge or Just Another Judge? (Part Two)

In the second part of this retrospective on Justice Sotomayor, my husband Manuel P. Santos, M.D., explores the impact that the justice's career has had on her family and faith life. He continues his earlier analogy to the song The Impossible Dream, which was made famous by the musical film Man of La Mancha.


To bear with unbearable sorrow

Was there pain along the way in Justice Sotomayor's rise to the highest court in the land? To answer this question we turn to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, a novel which is, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a masterpiece though of a different genre. The novel begins, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Sonia overcame many obstacles, and indeed one could argue that obstacles are there to be overcome. Sorrows on the other hand are borne, and often accompany us for a lifetime.  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines sorrow as deep distress, sadness, or regret especially for the loss of someone or something loved. Did Sonia lose anything or anyone during her life?

Well, let’s see, at age 7 she was diagnosed with diabetes. Think of your own life and tell me, have you ever been sick? Have you ever been diagnosed with a serious illness? The realization that health is both tenuous and fragile comes at a price. For some, the price is anger. Such anger is often, though not always, directed towards God. Why me? What did I do to deserve this? For others the price is a slow and persistent sadness. For Sonia, as with millions of diabetics the world over, every insulin shot and finger stick is a reminder of their illness. Perhaps it is also a reminder that life is a gift, though that realization does not necessarily do away with the sadness that comes from knowing what has been lost. It is this sadness I speak of, the sadness which comes without warning, the sadness which lingers.

At age 9 Sonia suffered the loss of her alcoholic father to a heart attack. He was 42 years old and while it’s true that he had neglected and tormented his children and his wife, his death represents not only a loss but a lost opportunity. Gone is the possibility of redemption and with it any chance at reconciliation. It also complicates the process of forgiveness for past hurts, a process that research shows to be essential. Sonia admitted during an interview with Oprah Winfrey (April 1, 2013) that growing up as the child of an alcoholic affected her deeply. “You look for subtle physical signs that tell you trouble is coming,” She said, adding, “You become a watchful child.” This fits a pattern frequently seen in adult children of alcoholics (ACOA), marked by hyper-vigilance and a tendency to scan the surroundings for potential catastrophes. Such people also tend to have difficulty with intimacy, pronounced abandonment issues, and an intense fear of losing control.

As if playing out a script, Sonia married her high school sweetheart, Kevin Edward Noonan, on August 14, 1976. They had no children and within seven years were divorced. Reflecting on her failed marriage, Sonia has stated that, “the fact that I was leaving my home at 7:00 AM and getting back at 10:00 PM was not of assistance in recognizing the problems developing in my marriage.” Although her statement is rather understated and seems overly matter of fact, she would state along similar lines, “I have found it difficult to maintain a relationship while I’ve pursued my career.

The final loss is perhaps best referred to as a ‘loss in progress’, since it cannot be fully assessed until her death, and even then remains somewhat hidden from mortal eyes. I am, for those still wondering, speaking about her Catholic faith. If I am maligned for having the temerity to comment on this aspect of her life, I will accept such criticism as partially warranted. I do not presume to judge the judge, only to look at the facts and perhaps draw some conclusions, uncomfortable though they may be. Towards this end I solicit an unlikely ally, the New York Times.

In a 2009 article, the New York Times discussed Justice Sotomayor’s Catholic upbringing, as well as the fact that although she was raised Catholic and attended a Catholic high school she did not attend Mass regularly while at Princeton nor during her years at Yale Law School. Recall for a moment that she was married in 1976, and that furthermore she chose to get married at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Unfortunately this tells us little since many Catholics whether tepid, lapsed, or outright indifferent to their faith, seek to marry in the Church. The reasons for this are many, though the scourge of divorces (with or without annulments) testifies strongly that a problem exists. Is it a lack of religious formation before the wedding? Perhaps it’s a simple case of choosing the wrong marriage partner. Of course there are reasons when a separation or divorce truly is the only option. Too often, however, the culprit is a matter of priorities. In short, many marriages fail because there is an unwillingness to place the marriage first.

The New York Times article goes on to describe the conservative block of Supreme Court Justices (Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito) as committed ‘attendees’ at Mass. An odd phrase to be sure, akin to describing some Jews on the Supreme Court as regular ‘attendees’ at Synagogue, or pointing out that Malcolm X or other observant Muslims regularly worship in the Mosque. Be that as it may, the article notes that because Judge Sotomayor is by all accounts a ‘cultural Catholic’, she is more likely to be pro-choice and pro gay marriage (unlike most Hispanics, which the article notes are pro-life and not in favor of gay marriage).

So, is Justice Sonia Sotomayor a lapsed or cultural Catholic? The facts seem to support that conclusion. Some readers may applaud this as a good thing. Such readers may see her Catholicism as an unwelcome limitation and praise her courage for setting herself free of such bondage. Well, there’s a name for people who say or whisper such things, it’s called a bigot. Intolerance comes in all forms, and when it’s directed at devout members of any faith, be it Catholic, Jewish, or Muslim, the bigotry is the same.

To run where the brave dare not go

The fourth and final line of this verse from the song The Impossible Dream asks that we take a look at what may be. What impact will this brilliant daughter of the poor and voiceless have on the nation? When President Obama called to tell her that he had decided to nominate her to the Supreme Court, he asked two things of her. The first was for her to accept the counsel of his advisors and in particular this meant Vice President Joe Biden since he had chaired every Supreme Court nomination hearing since 1987. The second request, that she keep in mind where she came from, that she remember her roots. As the story goes, she immediately replied that the second request was easy. Easy perhaps, though I suppose it depends on which roots one is talking about.  If it’s her Catholic roots, I submit to you that she has failed in her promise to President Obama.

There’s an old adage that most people have heard at one time or another and it states, “Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are.” Well, when NARAL Pro-Choice America endorsed Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court it was making a very public statement that she was their kind of nominee.

In turn, she has been quite vocal about the importance of privacy rights (i.e. read the right to abortion), and her support of precedents which support those rights (i.e. Roe v. Wade). It is, perhaps, a magnificent example of irony, then, that on the very day that her confirmation hearings commenced, a woman by the name of Norma McCorvey (i.e. the actual Jane Roe in the Roe v. Wade trial) was arrested for disturbing the hearings. I quote her words, the words which she stated openly for all to hear and which got her arrested:

“I’m here to overturn Roe and defeat Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court. She’s unworthy of the position. She’s Catholic. She’s even unworthy of taking communion because of her pro-abortion stance.”

Was it really necessary for us, reader, that NARAL Pro-Choice America endorse Judge Sotomayor before we could say with some confidence that she was firmly pro-choice? Well, perhaps for some the facade of impartiality is worth maintaining. You know the charade I’m talking about, the one where we pretend (or rather, some politicians pretend) that a Judge nominated to the Supreme Court by a Republican President or by a Democratic President does not, de facto, meet certain criteria. At the risk of being overly simplistic, a Republican President’s nominee must be pro-life and a Democratic President’s nominee must be pro-choice. To argue otherwise is foolish if not outright disingenuous.

It’s not difficult these days to be a Democrat and also be pro-choice. It’s expected. It’s not difficult to be a woman and be pro-choice. It’s expected. It’s not even difficult to be Catholic, albeit nominally so, and be pro-choice. Sadly, it’s the norm. I do not accuse Justice Sotomayor of cowardice. On the contrary, I think she has demonstrated herself throughout her life to be a woman of great strength and even tenacity in the face of opposition. I’ll say it loud and clear for all to hear, she is a brave woman. She is not, however, a brave Catholic. Catholics and other Christians are being persecuted in Iraq by ISIS and when confronted they are given a choice. Convert or die. Those Christians, those martyrs, are made of the same flesh and blood as you and me. And yet, they are willing to die for their faith. These too are Sonia’s roots, though she may not realize it. There is bravery in the face of criticism and then there is bravery in the face of death.

Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe), a convert to Catholicism, has come out bravely to be a voice for the voiceless. Who will listen to her? Will Justice Sotomayor hear her? Will she not only hear but listen? That remains to be seen.

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  1. Nice piece. Although impossible to make sense out of ISIS in Iraq, we can see the stark contrast between those willing to be martyred for their faith and people like us who complain about the line at the drive-thru, get upset at someone for their bad attitude, or roll our eyes at yet another telemarketer. We sometimes forget the raw reality that people will brutally suffer and die today just because they devote their lives to Christ, many of them innocent children. As we pray for these beautiful brothers and sisters in Christ, let us look at our own lives, shore up our faith in Jesus Christ, and both appreciate and use the comparative ease of our lives to love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves. God bless.

    1. Thank you for your well-thought-out and insightful comment, Stan. God bless you, too.