Would Sotomayor Be the First Hispanic Supreme Court Justice or Was It Cardozo?

Did he beat Sotomayor to the bench by three quarters of a century?

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

It's been widely reported that Judge Sonia Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court, though a few people (including some TV commentators) have wondered whether Justice Benjamin Cardozo (on the court from 1932-1938) should not in fact be counted as such.

The answer seems to be that Sotomayor would in fact be the first Hispanic, but it also points up the problem inherent in the term Hispanic.

Cardozo, Josh Marshall reports, was of Portuguese ancestry (Cardozo biographer Andrew Kaufman says that Cardozo "family legend" has them coming from Portugal, but without "firm documentation about the particulars"). Which brings us to the critical question: What sort of ancestry qualifies as Hispanic? There are three strikes against the Cardozo-as-Hispanic thesis, all having to do with the fact that Portuguese natives speak ... Portuguese (rather than Spanish).

  • A TPM reader notes that the Associated Press defines Hispanic as coming from a Spanish-speaking country, and distinguishes Hispanic from those of Brazilian and Portuguese descent.
  • Webster's dictionary defines Hispanic thusly: "Of or relating to the language, people, or culture of Spain or Spanish-speaking Latin America."
  • The U.S. Census uses the Office of Management and Budget's definition of Hispanic: "The term 'Hispanic' refers to persons who trace their origin or descent to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central and South America, and other Spanish cultures."
  • Portugal is on the Iberian peninsula, but is most certainly not Spanish. So Cardozo is not Hispanic. Or, presumably, Latino (the Census asks people whether they are Hispanic or Latino, since the words have different meanings in different parts of the country). Which brings up my larger problem here: The obsession with Sotomayor potentially being the first "Hispanic justice," like discussion in politics of the "Hispanic vote," assumes Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and so on to be a monolithic group who all care about the same set of issues. It's just not so (I have some firsthand knowledge here, having married a Puerto Rican)—the different groups have different perspectives and different issues that motivate them. They react differently to, say, normalizing trade relations with Cuba, how to handle illegal immigration, etc.

    But of course U.S. politics rarely acknowledges this fact.

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