A civil rights group advised by Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor in the 1980s brought several discrimination lawsuits that sought to scrap the results of job tests because too few Hispanics scored well, according to new documents that are fueling GOP criticism of the judge.
The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund represented Hispanic sanitation workers in New York City who wanted to stop white employees from getting promotions because, they argued, the qualifying exam unfairly disadvantaged minorities. The case unfolded as Sotomayor chaired the organization's board of directors' litigation committee, although there is no evidence that she had any role in the group's decision to participate in the lawsuits, or in formulating or drafting any of their legal arguments.
Still, the case bears strong similarities to a much-discussed case Sotomayor ruled on last year as a federal appeals court judge, which involved the reverse discrimination claims of white firefighters in New Haven, Conn., who sued after the city threw out its promotion test because too few minorities qualified. A panel she joined ruled against the white firefighters in the case, Ricci v. DeStefano. The Supreme Court reversed the decision last Monday.
The sanitation workers' case and similar ones — including a series of lawsuits against the New York City Police Department that ultimately resulted in the department consulting with a PRLDEF expert in drafting its job tests — are detailed in hundreds of pages of new material the group sent the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday. The documents were placed on the committee's web site.
The job discrimination suits, which are a staple of most minority legal advocacy groups' work, have drawn outrage from Republicans who allege they prove that Sotomayor has endorsed an agenda of reverse discrimination and racial preferences for minorities.
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the senior Republican on the Judiciary panel, said this week that the Puerto Rican defense group has taken "extreme positions," and his office branded the organization "activist" in a background memo it released on Friday. His aides had accused Sotomayor's allies of withholding the documents to prevent a thorough investigation of her past before confirmation hearings begin July 13.
Democrats call the group, now known as LatinoJustice PRLDEF, mainstream, and argue that most of the material has nothing to do with Sotomayor.
"Before this request, we already had a more public and complete picture of Judge Sotomayor than for previous nominees," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Judiciary chairman, said in a statement. "This well-respected civil rights advocacy organization has cooperated and made an extensive effort to review decades-old records, most of which have no connection to Judge Sotomayor, to provide even more information to the committee,"
The materials give little insight into Sotomayor's role in the organization's activities, even while she chaired the board's litigation committee. They do suggest, however, that Sotomayor and other board members were involved in making sure the cases PRLDEF handled were in keeping with its mission statement and were having an impact, according to a memo she wrote in June 1987.
The document said the board had asked the litigation committee she chaired to address "case development and litigation strategic planning," as well as the fund's mission statement and the structure of its legal department. But there's no mention in the voluminous files of what the committee ultimately recommended on those topics, and no sign that Sotomayor ever weighed in on any specific case or issue.
In addition to the job discrimination lawsuits, the material details cases PRLDEF handled on Hispanic voting suppression, bilingual education and housing, among others. In one such suit, Puerto Rican residents sought to stop the establishment of a rental community in Brooklyn for predominantly white, low-income elderly tenants on the grounds it wasn't being made available to the area's mostly minority residents.
The documents also reveal that PRLDEF joined a coalition of civil rights group to lobby Congress to override a 1989 Supreme Court decision that made it more difficult for people to prevail in job discrimination suits. In 1991, Congress passed legislation that essentially nullified the case's precedent. Many legal analysts believe the recent Ricci ruling again created new barriers to such suits.
Some civil rights leaders have expressed alarm at Sessions' intense focus on Sotomayor's time at PRLDEF, suggesting that it indicates that he's unfairly targeting her because she's Hispanic.
Sessions has "been extraordinarily consistent in his disdain for civil rights and equal opportunity. I don't know of very many prominent Latino or minority lawyers or judges who haven't been involved in civil rights sometime in their lives," said Antonia Hernandez, a former president of MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "It's a message that's being sent to minorities and Latinos that you cannot participate and be involved in the civic life of your community if you ever want to attain a position like this."