CHICAGO — Last week’s blockbuster Supreme Court decisions were seen as a loss for those who recoil at the thought of racial profiling and for those who see no difference between a penalty, a tax and a fundamental infringement on individual rights. But wherever you stand on the issues of state-based immigration enforcement or mandatory health care, I call the decisions a victory for independent thinkers.
Because of the Supreme Court’s unique role, its rulings end up reinforcing the winners and enflaming the losers, further heating the raging inferno of ill will and partisanship that has become emblematic of our national politics.
How refreshing then that the court — buckling under the weight of allegations of overly political hyperpartisanship — surprised us, giving our split and aggrieved electorate two instances where individual justices voted outside the constraints of their political philosophies.
By making tough decisions, Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Chief Justice John Roberts gave inspiration to anyone who is actually weighing issues and historical contexts instead of focusing on all there is to hate about their political enemies and only what is to love about their political heroes.
Sotomayor had scandalized her liberal Hispanic fans in April by being outwardly sympathetic to parts of Arizona’s “papers, please” immigration law and skeptical of the Obama administration’s arguments against it. At the time I wondered if Hispanic support would erode for her if she did anything other than vote to strike down all four provisions of the law or if she’d gain some respect from the right, which, during her confirmation, interpreted Sotomayor’s self-identification as a “wise Latina” as proof she was a liberal, activist judge.
As it turned out, neither happened.
Perhaps because of an overwhelming desire of the Democrat-leaning Hispanic electorate to paint the court’s decision as a win for President Obama — provisions allowing police to arrest someone based on the belief that a deportable offense was committed and criminalizing illegal immigrants for working or getting caught without their immigration papers were struck down — dissent was mostly kept in check.
Very few Hispanic voices were calling it a crushing defeat for all the Latinos who stand to be discriminated against under the provision requiring law enforcement to check immigration status if there is “reasonable suspicion,” which was upheld — and almost no one criticized Sotomayor for joining the majority.
In fact, even as one or two voices scoffing at the supposed Obama “win” were trying to gain traction on social media networks last Monday, Hispanics were eagerly tweeting “Happy Birthday” to Sotomayor, seemingly unfazed by her decision to, as some have put it, effectively codify racial profiling. And noticeably absent from the other side of the aisle was any acknowledgement that the first Latina to sit on the Supreme Court was perfectly capable of ruling on legal precedent instead of ethnic solidarity.
At least Sotomayor wasn’t bashed as a “traitor” like Chief Justice Roberts has been by the far right in the aftermath of the court allowing the Affordable Care Act to move forward mostly intact. But unlike Sotomayor’s experience, Roberts has gotten massive plaudits from his former detractors across the aisle.
The best roundup I’ve seen so far is from The Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz, detailing the “media man-crush” on Roberts, “the new liberal heartthrob” who saved Obamacare. Kurtz lasers in on the fact that conservatives are depicted as having grown or evolved only when they lurch leftward and provides a detailed account of the gushing adjectives that have been heaped on the previously vilified Roberts.
While a dramatic maturation or change of heart makes for great TV drama, I prefer the more sober assessments that call Roberts a pragmatist who compromised to make decisions that won the war for the conservative principle of limited federal authority even if an important political battle was lost. This is called integrity — adherence to core principles in the face of overwhelming pressure to skirt them for any number of good reasons.
Both Sotomayor and Roberts have shattered the stereotypes that had been heaped on them by others. And we have gained two powerful role models for the virtues of thinking independently and not blindly following any ideological crowd.
Esther Cepeda is syndicated columnist and an NBC Latino Contributor.
You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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