We've no doubt had plenty of Supreme Court justices who've been widely recognized, and some who've kept a relatively high public profile, but I can't remember the last time a sitting justice reached a level of celebrity on par with Sonia Sotomayor.
At her Wednesday night book talk [in Chicago], Justice Sonia Sotomayor glided through her audience of 700, dispensing homespun wisdom through a cordless microphone, interrupted by impromptu applause.
When the moderator read a question from Tabbie Major, age 7, about which books Justice Sotomayor loved as a child, she found the girl, locked her in an embrace, held on while reminiscing about Nancy Drew mysteries and then called out for a photographer to capture the moment. No need: a good portion of the crowd was already snapping pictures.
Welcome to another night in the life of Sonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court justice, current queen of the best-seller list and suddenly the nation's most high-profile Hispanic figure.
The NYT piece is a fascinating read, largely because I can't think of a modern judge who can illicit the kind of reactions Sotomayor is currently receiving. She's promoting her book, which is now a #1 bestseller, and her appearances "have the air of celebratory happenings, attended by entire families, people who left work early to line up for tickets and acolytes who quote her recent interviews from memory."
Candidates for national office can sometimes generate this kind of treatment. On rare occasions, senators do, too. Figures like Hillary Clinton and Colin Powell sometimes come along and get these strong public responses. But Supreme Court justices?
A brief highlight reel of audience responses: in Austin, Tex., about 1,500 people waited in the rain to see her, and rival booksellers combined their inventory to supply them with enough copies. Pamela Campos, an Air Force intelligence analyst and student at Portland State University in Oregon, drove 11 hours to an appearance in Northern California; at a networking meeting for Latina women beforehand, the group posed for a photo with books in hand.
Watching the justice in television interviews, "You want to just reach out and be her friend," Ana Flores, 40, who blogs about Latinos and child-rearing from Los Angeles, said in a telephone interview. "It doesn't feel like she's totally become part of the system."
Reading about these public receptions, I kept thinking back to Sotomayor's 2009 confirmation process, and the ugliness of some of the criticisms she received from the right. Indeed, I recall Republican leaders like then-RNC Chairman Michael Steele pleading with conservatives to stop using offensive, insulting, and bigoted attacks against Sotomayor, and those responsible for GOP outreach to Hispanic voters throwing their arms up in disgust.
Ultimately, Sotomayor was confirmed, but not before prominent GOP voices threw around some deeply disturbing rhetoric, and a total of 31 Republicans -- more than three-fourths of the entire caucus -- voted against her.
Given her popularity, I wonder how many of them would care to explain their opposition to Sotomayor's confirmation now?