The first Latina Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, isn’t shy about letting the world know how she feels about racism, taking the unusual step today of lashing a federal prosecutor for “racially charged remarks” during a drug trial.
“It is deeply disappointing to see a representative of the United States resort to this basic tactic more than a decade into the 21st century,” said Sotomayor in a statement. “We expect the government to seek justice, not fan the flames of fear and prejudice.”
Sotomayor has already occupied an unusual position for a Supreme Court justice — the center of a media spotlight — during her book tour for “Beloved World,” her memoir that is at the top of The New York Times bestsellers list. Sotomayor is an engaging presence on her book appearances, but as her latest action on the court indicates, she is also not shy about confronting injustice through the lens of a member of a minority group that has seen its share of prejudice.
Her outspokenness is in stark contrast to Justice Clarence Thomas, who is not only perhaps the most conservative member of the court but a black man who prefers to sink into the background on the court. Court watchers say that Thomas has gone more than seven years without asking a question during oral arguments — with the speculation being that Thomas, who has a Southern accent, may be self-conscious about the way he speaks.
But Sotomayor is not shy. What was even more unusual about her statement was that it came while she agreed with her colleagues in rejecting review of a defendant’s appeal. Sotomayor said the prosecutor’s remarks about an African-American suspect were “an affront to the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws.”
Sotomayor didn’t name the prosecutor. During cross-examination in a drug conspiracy case, he said: “You’ve got African-Americans, you’ve got Hispanics, you’ve got a bag full of money. Does that tell you – a light bulb doesn’t go off in your head and say, This is a drug deal?”
Sotomayor agreed with the majority that the appeal should be rejected for a variety of procedural reasons, but she said she issued the statement “to dispel any doubt whether the court’s denial of certiorari should be understood to signal our tolerance of a federal prosecutor’s racially charged remark.
“It should not,” she said.
Sotomayor was joined in her statement by Justice Stephen Breyer.
The case involved a man named Bongani Calhoun, who was convicted of participating in a drug buy in Texas and given 15 years behind bars on various charges. The big question was whether he was a willing participant, or just happened to be present when others attempted to purchase narcotics from undercover federal agents.
The inflammatory remarks came as the prosecutor repeatedly pressed Calhoun on the stand about his claim he did not want to be in the hotel room in the first place.
In addition, the prosecutor told the jury, “What does your common sense tell you that these people are doing in a hotel room with a bag full of money, cash? None of these people are Bill Gates or computer [magnates]? None of them are real estate investors.”
Sotomayor and Breyer criticized the Justice Department for not having a stronger response to the prosecutor — Justice officials told an appeals court the prosecutor’s statements were only “impolitic.” But the Obama administration’s solicitor general later acknowledged the remarks were “unquestionably improper.”
Sotomayor said: “I hope never to see a case like this again.”