Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor vs. Benjamin Cardozo: First Hispanic Supreme Court Justice?

True, she has not been confirmed yet--but still.

From USA Today:
Sonia Sotomayor's Puerto Rican heritage would make her the first Hispanic to serve on the nation's highest court — unless you count Benjamin Cardozo, who was on the court from 1932 to 1938.
Wikipedia gives the details:
Cardozo was born in New York City, the son of Rebecca Washington (née Nathan) and Albert Jacob Cardozo. Both Cardozo's maternal grandparents, Sara Seixas and Isaac Mendes Seixas Nathan, and his paternal grandparents, Ellen Hart and Michael H. Cardozo, were Sephardi Jews; their families immigrated from England before the American Revolution, and were descended from Jews who left the Iberian Peninsula for Holland during the Inquisition. Cardozo family tradition held that their ancestors were Marranos from Portugal, although Cardozo's ancestry has not been firmly traced to Portugal. [emphasis added]
But even assuming that Cardozo's roots go back to Portugal, that apparently may not be enough to give him the title of first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice. The USA today article quotes Cardozo biographer and Harvard Law professor Andrew Kaufman:
The Cardozo family legend is that they came from Portugal, Kaufman says, and the family tree cites their heritage as Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. "Many Spanish would deny Portuguese are Hispanic," he says. [emphasis added]
Apparently, this is no small issue.
The Portuguese-American Historical & Research Foundation has issued the following advisory:

To all Portuguese-Americans and/or Portuguese-Canadians:

  • Read several definitions of Hispanic first before considering yourselves as Hispanics;

  • Hispanic is basically an American term, not used in Europe;

  • Even people from Spain are not Hispanics; they are Spanish;

  • In Portuguese we use the term "Lusófonos" to describe people of Portuguese descent or culture.

The Wikipedia entry for "Hispanic" indicates that the US simply has not made up its mind:
The U.S. Office of Management and Budget currently defines "Hispanic or Latino" as "a person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race". This definition excludes people of Portuguese origins, such as Portuguese Americans or Brazilian Americans. However, they are included in some government agencies' definitions. For example, the U.S. Department of Transportation defines Hispanic to include, "persons of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, Central or South American, or others Spanish or Portuguese culture or origin, regardless of race." This definition has been adopted by the Small Business Administration as well as many federal, state, and municipal agencies for the purposes of awarding government contracts to minority owned businesses. Still, other government agencies adopt definitions that exclude people from Spain. Some others include people from Brazil, but not Spain or Portugal.
Bottom line, this question is much ado about nothing--which is exactly the point. It is no more relevant that Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic as that she would be the 3rd woman on the Supreme Court. 

The key is Sotomayor's record of accomplishment and competence to serve on the Court.
And there is lots to talk about there.

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