NPR logo Won't Judge Sotomayor be the Second Hispanic on the Supreme Court?

Won't Judge Sotomayor be the Second Hispanic on the Supreme Court?

The emails and calls keep arriving. They want to correct NPR. The newly confirmed Judge Sonia Sotomayor will not be the first Hispanic Supreme Court judge.

That honor, they say, should go to Benjamin Cardozo who joined the court in 1932.

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor at an East Room ceremony at the White House in Washington. May 26, 2009 Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press hide caption

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

"Your show, and many others, keep referring to Sotomayor as the 'first Hispanic and the third woman' to serve on the Supreme Court," wrote Gedalia Snow Rowe of Washington, NC. "I believe Benjamin Cardozo was the first Hispanic to hold that honor."

Even before Sotomayor was nominated for the highest court on May 26, NPR began discussing whether Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic and concluded she was. Cardozo had some Portuguese ancestors but his family was Sephardic Jewish and he was regarded as a Jewish appointee in 1932, according to NPR Washington editor, Ron Elving. In fact, the term "Hispanic" wasn't even used in the 1930s.

Please listen to this 50-second piece that appeared on All Things Considered on May 26.

Won't Judge Sotomayor be the Second Hispanic on the Supreme Court?

Audio for this story is unavailable.

Talk of the Nation brought Andrew Kaufman on the air to deal with this question. Kaufman, a Harvard law professor, is author of a 1998 book, Cardozo, considered a definitive biography of the justice.

Here's what Kaufman had to say:

NEAL CONAN: Well, Justice Cardozo took his seat on the High Court in 1932. He was a descendant of Sephardic Jews who emigrated to the United States from England and Holland, but his biographer Andrew Kaufman told us it's complicated.

Mr. ANDREW KAUFMAN (Author, "Cardozo"): The family's legend is that the Cardozos came originally from Portugal. But there is no firm documentation about the particulars, although the name Cardozo is a fairly common name in Portugal and Brazil even today. Many Spanish and - would deny that Portuguese are Hispanic. Many Jews do not regard themselves as ethnically part of the European country they came from."

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Kaufman continued, "Many Sephardic Jews, however, do regard themselves as ethnically Spanish and Portuguese. But so far as I know, whether one was Hispanic was not an issue for Cardozo in his day. I don't remember ever having run across the term in contemporary relevant writing.

For more information, check out what Factcheck.org has to say.