Professor at the CUNY School of Law and the founding director of its Center on Latino and Latina Rights and Equality. She served as a law clerk to Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor in 1993-94, when Sotomayor was a Manhattan federal court judge.
Democracy Now! co-host and columnist for the New York Daily News.
As Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s historic confirmation hearings continue into their second day, we speak to CUNY Law School Professor Jenny Rivera, founding director of the Center on Latino and Latina Rights and Equality and a former law clerk under Sotomayor. We’re also joined by Democracy Now! co-host Juan Gonzalez, who is in Washington for the hearings. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman, joined now by CUNY Law School Professor Jenny Rivera. She’s the founding director of the Center on Latino and Latina Rights and Equality. She served as a law clerk to Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor in 1993, ’94, when Sotomayor was a Manhattan federal court judge. From 1988 to ’92, she was an associate counsel for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national civil rights organization on whose board Sonia Sotomayor served for more than a decade. Jenny Rivera, joins us from Washington, DC, where she’s been attending Sotomayor’s confirmation hearing.
And we’re joined on the phone by Democracy Now!
’s Juan Gonzalez, who is in the hearing room right now.
Juan, let’s go to you first. Describe the scene and what happened yesterday, as well. You were right there.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, the reporters are filing in right now, Amy. It’s a huge, huge press corps, obviously; more than 200 reporters are packed in. And yesterday, it was standing room only in the hearing room in the Senate Hart Office — the Hart Office Building. And a sense, a real sense, of a historic moment, obviously, especially in terms of the Latino community.
The White House apparently was very involved in orchestrating everything, even the photo opportunities. I spoke to several Congress members who were asked to be in the back, in the rows immediately behind Sonia Sotomayor, so they would be caught by all the cameras, including the Bronx Congressman Jose Serrano, Brooklyn Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, Senator Bob Menendez. All of them were prominently behind Sotomayor so that they could be caught by the cameras, of course, in addition to all of her family that took up one whole row on one section of the hearing room.
AMY GOODMAN: Juan, what were you struck most by yesterday?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, clearly, I think it was, I think, the sense that even the Republicans are aware that despite whatever criticisms they may raise, as Lindsey Graham said at one point, “Unless you have a complete meltdown, you’re going to be — you’re going to be confirmed by the Senate.” There’s a sense, even among the Republicans, that she will clearly be confirmed, unless some outrageous situation develops within the hearing itself.
And I think that while most of the Republicans seem to say that they would be centering on her judicial philosophy, my suspicion is that there will be attempts by some to attempt to raise the issue of Sotomayor’s longtime membership on the board of directors of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund and some of the controversial issues that PRLDEF raised. I would not be surprised if that occurred, although none of them mentioned that in their opening remarks.
But I think that, overall, what I was struck at was, I guess, by the sense of acknowledgement by several of the Republicans that this seemed to be, despite whatever questions they might raise, largely a fait accompli that she will be set the next Supreme Court justice.
AMY GOODMAN: Jenny Rivera, you were there, too, in the courtroom looking at the judge from a different perspective: you were her law clerk. Talk about that experience and also what it was like to be in the hearing room with your mentor, with the woman you worked for, who may now occupy one of the highest positions in the land, be a Supreme Court justice.
JENNY RIVERA: Yes, hi, good morning. Thank you for having me on the show.
Well, it was an electric moment of — you could really sense that this is historic, that this individual — I think Juan is right, that you could really feel in that room and sense from what was being said that even the Republicans were acknowledging the pull of history, the pull to her eventual confirmation. And it was really an exciting moment.
I was also struck by the inability on the Republican side to really present anything that might be a real true obstacle or a hurdle to her confirmation. I mean, saying that all it takes is a meltdown isn’t saying much. She has faced tough crowds, and I don’t think there’s going to be any meltdown. We certainly didn’t see anything like that yesterday.
But it was a magnificent moment, I will tell you. Even on the street, where people waiting — where people were waiting on line, people came at the crack of dawn for those tickets, wanted to be in that room, wanted to see her, wanted to hear her, wanted to be part of what was going on. So it was really quite, quite amazing. And I think we’re all struck by — you know, that we are probably weeks away from her joining the court.
AMY GOODMAN: Jenny, where were you when you heard that Judge Sotomayor had been nominated to be Supreme Court justice?
JENNY RIVERA: I was home. I think I was listening to NPR. I was about to jump in the shower. And I started to yell, I started to cry. It was quite amazing.
I think, you know, the fact that she was on the shortlist, many of us had great hopes and really hoped that President Obama and his team would realize what we all knew, who have worked for her, who have known her for years, that she’s an incredible candidate and would be a wonderful justice. But, you know, we’ve been disappointed in the past. Her name has been on that shortlist before for other presidents. And the Latino community has waited a very long time for this. So, until you hear it, it’s sort of not real.
AMY GOODMAN: Jenny, your response to the whole controversy over the “wise Latina” comment? I can only think that that will be the title of her autobiography someday.
JENNY RIVERA: Well, I’m optimistic we’ll finally get a wise Latina on the Supreme Court.
But, well, my response to that is that I’m certainly not surprised that that has become sort of the mantra of the critics, because otherwise there’s nothing really to attack. She has stellar credentials. She has an incredible record, incredible experience. And she is a moderate jurist. You’re not going to find something in the opinions to attack her on. And so, that’s why, as Juan described, you heard that chant yesterday from the various Republicans about her inability to be impartial, and it was based on these comments that they say she’s made over and over.
But my reaction to it was, well, let me go read the whole statement. I heard some of it in the past. I said, let me reread the article itself, and let me see exactly what’s in the paper. And it is — as I’m sure many of you already know, it is a document that reflects a judge who is being very thoughtful and very candid about the decision-making process, who’s working through this incredibly tough question about how judges come to decisions, what is it that influences them, and I think very candidly recognizing that although we’re very — in these very early stages, because the reality is that we have yet to have a judicial branch that really is reflective and fully diverse, that we are only now beginning to see enough women and enough people of color in that judicial system to start really thinking about the impact that that has on our judiciary and on our legal system, but really grappling with the idea now that there are more people present, and what does that mean, and being very candid and saying what I think many people now acknowledge, which is that judges are human beings. Like all of us, they have been affected by their experiences, and they are the products of their histories and those life experiences. And they bring that into the courtroom. Of course, as she has said and as she acknowledged yesterday, she decides based on the law, and at the end of the day, what counts is the rule of law. But she acknowledges in those statements that she is influenced by who she is, what those experiences are, and that she works very hard for anything that’s a prejudice not to influence her.
Of course, she’ll respond to those questions today, if people believe that what she said yesterday is not enough, because I think yesterday she laid — you know, she laid to rest the question of whether or not she’s impartial and said, “I have one judicial philosophy, and that is that I’m ruled by the fidelity to the law.”
AMY GOODMAN: Juan Gonzalez — and Juan, you can jump off anytime you have to, as you are in the hearing room right now. But yesterday, there were some interruptions. I believe four people were arrested, chanting against abortion. One of them, Norma McCorvey, who is the original Roe of Roe v. Wade, who has changed her position, now against abortion, she interrupted Al Franken. Wasn’t this his first major hearing as senator from Minnesota?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes. And, of course, clearly it was a surprise to everyone, but it sort of was a reflection that many of these hot-button social issues are still — strongly divide the American people, and I think it was a reflection of that. But generally speaking, I think that there was a sense that this was an enormously historic moment.
And I think also this whole issue of the — to what degree empathy or the personal experiences of particular justices affect their ability to judge, I think that at one point Kirsten Gillibrand, Senator Gillibrand, attempted to raise the issue, although she was cut off because she was running out of time, and she was about to introduce Sotomayor, that Antonin Scalia has mentioned in the past that when he hears immigration cases or an immigration case has come before him, he can’t help but think of his own immigrant parents who came to this country and that it affects him, and when he’s hearing immigration cases. And, of course, some people have remarked that Justice Hugo Black had — at one time was a member of the KKK and had to, when he joined the Supreme Court, deal with the fact that he had previously been a KKK member, yet he turned out to be one of the most liberal justices on civil rights issues under the Warren Court, so that clearly every judge brings to the court their own life experience, but it’s not necessarily a predictor of how they are going to then rule, although clearly it will inform — their own experiences will inform their interpretation of the law.
AMY GOODMAN: Jenny Rivera, what is Judge Sotomayor’s position on abortion?
JENNY RIVERA: Well, I think if she chooses to answer that today, we’ll find out.
AMY GOODMAN: What about her record over the years?
JENNY RIVERA: Well, she’s never addressed that question directly in any case, so we don’t have any judicial opinion regarding that. So we don’t have a basis to draw a conclusion. And I don’t — I’ve never had a conversation with her about the right to choose.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your experience with her? You were her law clerk. How long did you clerk for her? And talk about who Sonia Sotomayor is, the judge, the woman, your boss.
JENNY RIVERA: Yeah, I worked with her from ’93 to ’94. It was her second year on the Southern District, and so it was a really amazing experience. She is a very hard worker. She’s brilliant. She brings a tremendous amount of experience to that courtroom. She really commands a courtroom. She has very high expectations for herself, and as I think we all know by now, she meets them. But she has very high expectations for everyone who works for her. So it was a wonderful experience in that way, because it really pushed me to do my best, to always be certainly prepared for whatever questions she might have and to anticipate questions and anticipate what was going on in the courtroom or what questions might come up in a case.
But she is really also a wonderful person to work with, because she is very much concerned that the people who are working with her are having a positive experience, that they’re enjoying the work, that they’re finding it challenging. She likes to keep in touch with her former clerks to know how their life is going, to find out how their professional career is going.
And she really is a wonderful person to be around. It’s an amazing experience, actually, to be in the courtroom building with her, because she is so gracious and so open to everyone. You know, everyone who sees her in that building knows her. She says "good morning" to people. She sees them in the cafeteria, and people acknowledge her, and she acknowledges them. So she’s also very much in touch with the people around her. And so, in that way, it’s really wonderful to observe her.
AMY GOODMAN: Any anecdotes you’d like to share about your experiences with Judge Sotomayor?
JENNY RIVERA: Well, I don’t have any specific act. I think what’s really interesting and amazing about her, despite, you know, the claims about her temperament and so forth, which I think are based more on, you know, these old stereotypes about what we expect of a woman who’s intelligent and well prepared, but I really was very taken by the fact that in her courtroom, someone who came in who was pro se, that is, someone who did not have representation, was treated with the same respect and listened to as, you know, a law partner from a big law firm. So, in that way, she levels out the playing field in the courtroom, although in the end she sifts through those facts and applies the law to the facts. But I was very taken and really quite impressed by the fact that she was able to do that in her courtroom every day, without blinking and without thinking twice about it. It’s second nature to her.