Sonia Sotomayor – “Maria”

May It Please the Court, by Maira Kalman
May It Please the Court, by Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman’s And the Pursuit of Happiness Blog features the “May It Please the Court” art piece published on the Maira’s piece offers such a creative review of the Supreme Court, and what it is like to be a woman on the land’s highest court.

Perhaps what Sonia Sotomayor is experiencing is the same all women on the Supreme Court have faced, as do women working in all aspects of the legal profession today.

Check out Kalman’s amazing drawings, and the brains behind the entire piece.

—– —– —–

I happened to have an assignment due for my journalism class, one that asked that we speak about a time when we had felt like an ‘outsider’ and how it had impacted us personally. Unlike a straight journalism piece, we were required to speak from a personal perspective.

Slip of the tongue or not, calling Sotomayor “Maria” may have a greater impact than Mike Huckabee may understand. Here is my take on it all:

I think about the news of today as the sun sets and my house settles into quiet. Today, Sonia Sotomayor was nominated to fill the Supreme Court position vacated with Justice David Sutter’s retirement. I watched some of the news coverage about her nomination, and heard the challenges. “Liberal,” “Activist Judge,” “Sympathetic,” “Hefty,” “Not up to the intellectual challenge.”

Perhaps the most egregious statement came in a supposed slip of the tongue from Senator Mike Huckabee who called Judge Sotomayor, “Maria.” Any Latino knows what that meant – who knows if Huckabee did. Yet, it seems likely, given the connotation this code word will have with the most conservative, rabidly anti-immigrant base.

It’s a secret code language that most of the public can and will dismiss, but “Maria” will stay in the minds of Latinos when they go to work tomorrow wondering how it will be that their good work, hard efforts, and professional growth will ever be recognized when this genius of a legal mind can be reduced to a maid with the slip of one tongue.

When I learned that Sotomayor voted 95% with Republican counterparts, I wondered what all the fuss was about from Republican representatives.

The code word of “Maria” is practically as clear as can be – Sotomayor is a Latina, plain and simple. It doesn’t matter if she votes with Republicans, it doesn’t matter if she has the highest credentials. Critics of her nomination are saying if she passes through, Latinos will feel empowered to believe they can be anything they set their minds to, and then, what might happen next?

——     ——-      ——-

I thought back to my own short-lived legal career. In my second year, like everyone else with similar class standing, I began the process of musical chairs in the dating process for summer clerkships. I had dreams of making Moot Court and impressing the biggest law firms. In fact, I did not make moot court, although I tried.

When I compare myself to Judge Sotomayor, a recognized, respected jurist with stellar credentials, I am just so not Supreme Court material.

Still, I had placed in the top 25% of my class and had chosen intellectual property as my focus. Despite an economic downturn brewing in 1991, I did get a full slate of interviews.

I arrived early that day for my first appointment. I waited in the hallway, sitting on a chair outside the conference room where the interview was being held. I watched classmates coming and going from interviews on the circular floor. We’d exchange social pleasantries, but ultimately, like any survivor show, we were all competing for the same slots.

I had gotten a nice suit for the interview and I felt confident. I was one of the only female classmates that had chosen a suit color other than black or blue, a fact confirmed upon checking my hair and make-up one last time in the bathroom.

I secretly damned myself for another expression of unnecessary individualism. I had tried very hard to suppress my Latina, “emotional, passionate, creative” nature, particularly since the call of objectivity in the law demanded that law school not be a place where classmates should see one exhibit any emotions in the debate process.

Debate was all fine and good, as long as the emotions were checked in on your way in the door to law school.

No one mentioned exactly when we were supposed to pick up the emotions up again.

I found the first year of law school hardest. The reading and homework was arduous, but fine. What took so much effort was being someone I was not.

Now here I was heading into my third year, and about to walk in for an interview with one of the country’s, well damn near, the country’s largest law firm. I watched as the door swung open and John Hoffman said, ‘its all yours, best of luck,” before holding the door for me to as he walked out of his interview.

I sat down at the long table, the three interviewers sitting before me, clearly tired but with fresh smiles as we began.

‘So, your name is….., are you Hispanic?’

I heard the breath suck right out of me. I had not expected the question. I felt a little stunned, smiled, and then, shared my answer.

I made it through the rest of my interview and waited to cry until I was in my car, driving back from downtown Los Angeles towards the coast on the 10 Freeway.

I got the clerkship, but somehow, the separation between myself and the legal profession had started.

——-         ——        ——-

I was assigned that summer to work on a case brought by MALDEF alleging the defending school district, our client, was not providing equal education to kids in rich and poor neighborhoods because the schools did not receive equal funding due to neighborhood property value differences.

Having grown up on the Westside, having gone to school in one of the best school districts, I knew there was a difference. I knew it was a difference grown adults could see if we all just got in the car and dropped into schools in both districts to compare the classrooms themselves, or the campuses.

The case torn me up, at night, I’d have nightmares. I wondered what it was I was doing in this profession that saw me as ‘other.’ Was the price of acceptance to turn my eyes from reality?

I felt I was being told that to have the degree, to be educated and be smart, I was going to need to check my emotions at the door forever. I knew I would not be able to make that deal.

——      ——-       —–

I placed the pencil down on the paper. I leaned over to pick up my backpack and quietly left the lecture hall. The warm sun was making its final descent towards the Pacific to close down the day. I had taken my very last law exam, and I was ecstatic. I walked through the rose garden on the way to my car.

As I drove up the onramp to head back home, I turned on the radio. The Rodney King verdict was being read on air from the court steps, and reports of fires were confirmed looking in my rearview mirror as I headed back to the Westside.

I suddenly knew I probably wasn’t going to be a lawyer in this lifetime as I watched the human cost of our legal system without emotion unfold.

My college newspaper photojournalism instinct kicked in. I went downtown to photograph in the riot torn area, the same area where the day before I had finished the last leg in a three-year journey to become an attorney. That experience of feeling like an outsider influenced my life forever.

Before that time, I had inklings, but never confirmation that despite my intelligence and hard work, I’d always be seen as “Maria.”

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