Ron Radosh

Judge Sotomayor and The New York Times: A Strange Omission

When Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court by President Barack Obama was announced, The New York Times almost immediately ran a major profile of the judge by Sherl Gay Stolberg, “Sotomayor, a Trailblazer and a Dreamer,” that appeared on p. Al of the paper and continued for two more pages.

Scroll down in the article to the paragraph that begins with the words  “In her student thesis.” The paragraph reads:

Ms. Sotomayor wrote about Puerto Rico’s long struggle for political and economic self-determination. While [Gov.] Munoz Marin created great hope among Puerto Ricans, “the island has continued to be plagued by unemployment, absentee ownership and dependency on mainland revenues,”  she concluded.

But there is a very strange and troubling omission in the online version of Stolberg’s article, when compared with what was in some of the actual print editions, and was removed from the version published online by the Times.

In the printed version- at least the version that appeared in certain editions including the one I clipped-the following sentence appears after the quote from her thesis about Muonz Marin, and the ending words “she concluded.” Here is the missing sentence from Stolberg’s article:

In the footnotes, Ms. Sotomayor wrote that she relied on books that used “Marxist-Leninist analysis”- not an uncommon tool for historians- to study the impact of colonialism on the island.  

Let us examine this sentence, and particularly Stolberg’s claim that Marxist-Leninist analysis is “not an uncommon tool for historians.” As my friend the lawyer and historian Henry D. Fetter puts it, “except perhaps at the old East German Institute for Historical Studies or [Moscow’s] Patrice Lumumba University in their ‘glory days.'”  One must also add, of course, Moscow University from Lenin through Brezhnev. One recalls that Mikhail Gorbachev’s wife got her degree  in “Marxist-Leninist philosophy.”

There are many Marxist historians and others who use Marxist analysis as a starting point for historical exploration. The most well known in America is the major historian of slavery and the Old South, Eugene D. Genovese. Although he is now a political conservative, he has never disavowed those who use Marxist analysis to gain insight into the historical process. But only in the Soviet bloc countries did anyone ever refer to “Marxist-Leninist” analysis. That very term confers credibility to a hard-line Leninist and Stalinist weltanschauung, used only by supporters of Soviet style communism.  One must wonder whether Judge Sotomayor used any books that contradicted or did not use Marxist-Leninist analysis to reach her conclusion?

So the question is: why did the New York Times delete the sentence? It was the young Sotomayor herself who wrote the words in her senior thesis about the books she used. Did her people phone the paper and ask that it be deleted from future editions, or did the paper’s editors realize it made themselves and their reporter look bad, and fearing that it might hurt the judge, remove it before too many people noticed?

As for Judge Sotomayor at Princeton, one must acknowledge that she wrote her thesis thirty years ago. People change their ideas and their politics, and whatever she thought then- and she clearly was sympathetic to the Puerto Rican left-wing and its call for independence- her early views cannot be held against her. Lots of sensible people (I include myself) developed allegiances to very questionable political movements when they were in college, and many of them outgrew their early views as they advanced in age and knowledge.

Writing in The Ninth Justice, legal reporter Stuart Taylor Jr. and his colleague K.C. Johnson of Brooklyn College’s History Department, evaluated the thesis. Johnson read it in its entirety, and as a historian, said he would have given it an A or at least an A-. He termed it “solidly researched and fairly well written,” although he had a few caveats, which he calls “jarring elements.” In particular, Johnson found that she wrote as a Puerto Rican nationalist who favored independence, a position espoused by a scant 0.6 % of the population in the island. And that cause was favored fiercely by the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, which defined itself as a Marxist-Leninist group. (i.e., Communist) Johnson also wrote that she called the Congress “The North American Congress” and the “mainland Congress” in the thesis, which he sees as “bizarre. ” It as if the Supreme Court in which she seeks to become a Justice would be called the “North American Supreme Court.” Johnson calls this language “trendy, and not uncommon, among the Latin Americanist fringe of the academy.”

Finally, Sotomayor opposed Munoz Marin’s so-called “Operation Bootstrap” as a colonial venture that would keep Puerto Rican dependent upon the United States, something Johnson terms “wholly unsupported by the evidence that she presented in thesis” as well as “by virtually any evidence that has appeared since that time.”

Later, in a 1979 Yale Law School journal article, Sotomayor had shifted from a proponent of independence to what law professor Roger Alford has called an “affirmative action plan for Puerto Rico” statehood. He emphasizes that Sotomayor then still believed the island was a “small, economically poor dependency” that was in that condition due to the “American experience with colonialism.”

By any account, then, young Sonia Sotomayor considered herself sympathetic to the Puerto Rican fringe left-wing, and its campaign for independence. How does that, if  at all, color what stance she would take towards questions of affirmative action, and other legal issues that come before the court? When and why did she change her early views? These questions have not as yet been answered. And finally, again, why did The New York Times delete the reference to Sotomayor’s dependence on books using Marxist-Leninist analysis?