Fairness in Accuracy & Reporting has compiled a detailed analysis of how Sonia Sotomayor has been misquoted deliberately by her critics and carelessly by the media. Their account follows:
At this point, the confirmation battle over Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor will hinge in part on whether the media want to fact-check her critics. So far, the press is largely failing.
Right-wing critics and politicians have been circulating comments Sotomayor made in 2001 at UC Berkeley. One quote has been replayed endlessly: "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." (Sometimes the quote is replayed without the "I would hope that" qualifier--e.g., NBC Nightly News, 5/31/09.)
Does Sotomayor believe that Latina judges are wiser than white judges? That's what her right-wing critics want the quote to mean. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer characterized (5/28/09) her views as "the superior wisdom she believes her Latina physiology, culture and background grant her over a white male judge." And as CNN host Lou Dobbs put it (6/1/09), "She said more often than not a Latino judge would reach a better decision than a white male." That message has been carried mostly uncritically in much of the corporate media, thanks largely to a willingness to let right-wing pundits frame the discussion--often with little in the way of rebuttal from Sotomayor's defenders.
In the May 27 Washington Post, Howard Kurtz quoted that sentence along with a Fox News host calling Sotomayor a reverse racist. On May 28, the New York Times ran a story headlined "Sotomayor's Opponents and Allies Prepare Strategies." The piece recounted the controversial sentence, followed by the reaction of Newt Gingrich--he thinks she's a racist who should withdraw her name--and Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, who doesn't think she should withdraw, but was nonetheless troubled by some of Sotomayor's views.
But anyone who reads Sotomayor's 2001 speech can see that the prevailing media discussion is totally misleading. Her point was that people's backgrounds affect how they see the world. This would seem to be a rather uncontroversial fact of life; justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Samuel Alito made similar statements about their own backgrounds to no great controversy.
In regards to cases involving race and gender discrimination, which was the topic under discussion, Sotomayor was arguing that the experience of facing discrimination may help in judging such cases--pointing out that despite the presumption that "a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases," such wise old men as Oliver Wendell Holmes and Benjamin Cardozo "voted on cases which upheld both sex and race discrimination in our society." She added: "Let us not forget that until 1972, no Supreme Court case ever upheld the claim of a woman in a gender discrimination case."
It's not so hard to explain the context, but NBC's Meet the Press host David Gregory bungled his attempt to do so on May 31, excerpting primarily the lines from Sotomayor's address that buttress the claims of her right-wing critics, while leaving out the lines that make it clear that Sotomayor was advocating that judges strive to put aside their prejudices. His excerpt closed with this line: "Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see. My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what the difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage." But Gregory left out her conclusion:
I am reminded each day that I render decisions that affect people concretely and that I owe them constant and complete vigilance in checking my assumptions, presumptions and perspectives and ensuring that to the extent that my limited abilities and capabilities permit me, that I reevaluate them and change as circumstances and cases before me requires. I can and do aspire to be greater than the sum total of my experiences but I accept my limitations. I willingly accept that we who judge must not deny the differences resulting from experience and heritage but attempt, as the Supreme Court suggests, continuously to judge when those opinions, sympathies and prejudices are appropriate.
Read the entire analysis here.