Samuel Alito
Credit: Italy in US/Flickr

A little over a year ago, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was asked to name his most consequential political accomplishment. At the top of his list was rapid confirmations of conservative judges to every level of the federal judicial system. He has been perfectly happy to completely neuter Congress, stack the federal courts with extremist judges, and allow them to legislate from the bench while the GOP slips into minority status.

The decisions made by those extremist judges will impact all of us for decades. But one of the areas most threatened will be the rights gained by women and people of color over the last few decades.

When it comes to the Supreme Court, if I were to ask you which justice was the most hostile to the rights of people of color, I doubt that anyone would name Samuel Alito. And yet, as Ian Millhiser explains, he is the justice who becomes the most agitated at the mere suggestion that racism still affects people of color. On the other hand, Alito doesn’t embrace the “color blindness” that has become the staple of Chief Justice Roberts. Instead, he has written opinions affirming discrimination against white people.

All of that reminds me of something Alito said during his Senate confirmation hearings.

Senator, I tried to in my opening statement, I tried to provide a little picture of who I am as a human being and how my background and my experiences have shaped me and brought me to this point. … And that’s why I went into that in my opening statement. Because when a case comes before me involving, let’s say, someone who is an immigrant — and we get an awful lot of immigration cases and naturalization cases — I can’t help but think of my own ancestors, because it wasn’t that long ago when they were in that position…

And that goes down the line. When I get a case about discrimination, I have to think about people in my own family who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of religion or because of gender. And I do take that into account.

Alito was lauded for suggesting that his background influenced his decisions as a judge. But a few years later, Sonia Sotomayor was pilloried by Republicans for saying this during a lecture she gave in 2001.

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…

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…

Each day on the bench I learn something new about the judicial process and about being a professional Latina woman in a world that sometimes looks at me with suspicion…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.

The distinction for conservatives, of course, is that the experience of white people is considered normative, while being a “wise Latina” indicates bias.

It is worth noting that Sotomayor demonstrated an awareness that she must “judge when those opinions, sympathies, and prejudices are appropriate.” In the rulings described by Millhiser, it becomes obvious that Alito believes that his biases are always justified.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.