SCOTUS Sephardic Jew Trivia Edition

May 26, 2009 7:37 a.m.

Everyone is hailing Sonia Sotomayor as (if confirmed) the first Hispanic on the US Supreme Court. But we’ve had a few emailers who point out that, at least by one definition, that’s not true. They point to Benjamin Cardozo who had a relatively brief tenure as an Associate Justice on the court from 1932 until his death in 1938.

Cardozo held what was then informally known as one of the Jewish seats on the Court (he overlapped with Brandeis and was succeeded by Frankfurter.) But his ancestors were Portuguese Jews. That is, they were Sephardic Jews presumably expelled from Portugal in 1497 or who lived as conversos and then later reverted to Judaism after leaving at some later point.

This could of course suggest that a hidden Hispanic seat stood vacant on the Court for a full 71 years until today. But, be that as it may, there’s your asterisk: Sotomayor is the first Hispanic Justice, unless you think that Cardozo was the first.

Late Update: Okay, a smackdown has broken out in the TPM inbox over the meaning of ‘Hispanic’. Several say that ‘Hispanic’ applies only to Spain or former Spanish colonies where they speak Castillian Spanish and not Portugal. I’d always understood the term as applying to the Iberian peninsula in general. And Wikipedia suggests this is or rather was correct but that that meaning has been superseded by a narrower focus on Spain or even just the Spanish colonies. For my part though I’d like to try to make this slightly more complicated. It has been suggested that not a few Spanish Jewish expellees in Europe in the Early Modern Era chose to call themselves ‘Portuguese Jews’ because ‘Spain’ was the national enemy in many of the countries in which they resided — such as England, the Netherlands and even France. Furthermore, some Spanish Jews were expelled from Spain and went to Portugal, only to be expelled from Portugal a few years later. So I’m not sure we should yet stop defending Cardozo’s claim to the first Hispanic Justice title.

Late I Never Liked the AP Update: From TPM Reader WM

According to the AP stylebook on my desk, Hispanic is “the preferred term for those whose ethnic origin is a Spanish-speaking country. … Refer to people of Brazilian and Portuguese as such, not as Hispanic.”

Cardozo, as you wrote, was of Portuguese descent.

But, remember, perhaps they were crypto-Spanish crypto-Jews (sort of converso scholarship inside joke …)

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