Thursday, June 11, 2009

It was revealed Friday that Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor belongs to the Belizean Grove, a highly selective club for women only. Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont announced Tuesday that her confirmation hearings will begin on July 13. If this judge were a man, the nomination would never make it to the Senate for hearings.

The Belizean Grove, founded in 1999, is modeled on the Bohemian Grove, a secretive, elite club for men only. The 125 members of the Belizean Grove include Army generals, Wall Street executives and former ambassadors. Ms. Sotomayor joined after becoming a circuit court judge.

We don’t care if nominees belong to all-male or all-female clubs, but a double standard is in play. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s supposed membership in an all-male eating club while an undergraduate at Princeton became an issue during his 2006 Supreme Court confirmation hearing. When Judge D. Brooks Smith was nominated to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in 2001, his confirmation was held up for almost a year in part because he belonged to an all-male fishing and gun club.

The opposition to all-male clubs isn’t anything new. The American Bar Association’s Canons of Judicial Ethics stipulates that judges “shall not” be members of any organization that unfairly discriminates based on gender.

In June 1990, Arlen Specter, then a Republican from Pennsylvania, and all but one of the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary committee sponsored a resolution warning nominees that having belonged to such clubs could be enough to deny them confirmation. The resolution claimed that membership in such organizations “conflicts with the impartiality, and the appearance of impartiality” expected of judges and that it will be held against the nominee unless they “actively engaged” in efforts to get underrepresented groups into the organizations.

Sens. Leahy, Specter and Herb Kohl, Wisconsin Democrat, supported the resolution and are still on the Judiciary Committee. Joseph Biden, who was the committee chairman at the time, is now vice president. None of them has expressed any concern over news that Ms. Sotomayor belongs to an all-female club. Despite inquiries to all of the above, only Sen. Specter’s office responded, noting that Ms. Sotomayor’s “club memberships and affiliations are appropriate topics for inquiry.”

Privately, Democrats on Capitol Hill tell us that the Belizean Grove is not objectionable like all-male clubs such as Judge Smith’s fishing and hunting club, where “wining and dining was happening” and business networking advantaged men who belonged to the club. But the Belizean Grove is all about networking too. Business Week reported in 2001 that panels at club meetings included topics such as “how to obtain money and power.” The article noted that the expectation was that women in this group would “help one another in any way they can.”

More than a few men would appreciate the help that the high-powered corporate chief executives and other leaders in the Belizean Grove could offer, but they’re not allowed in Ms. Sotomayor’s club. This association compounds concern about her gender bias, which has been exposed in her numerous statements about women’s judgment being superior to men’s, especially that of a “wise Latina woman” over a white man. There’s no guarantee that a judge with these opinions will treat everyone equally from the bench.

We hoped that President Obama’s election would bring an end to identity politics. Picking Judge Sotomayor for the Supreme Court has re-emphasized race and gender as central issues in politics today.

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