Sonia Sotomayor speaks at the National Association of Women Judges...

Sonia Sotomayor speaks at the National Association of Women Judges conference in Washington in 2010. Credit: AP

Be careful who you throw under the campaign bus.

Mitt Romney's backers decided to sully U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor's good name. It was one of their latest jabs against GOP opponent Rick Santorum -- and another craven attempt to prove their candidate is the "true conservative" in the race.

The Romney radio ad, debuted in the run-up to Super Tuesday, criticizes Santorum's 1998 vote to confirm Sotomayor to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals during his time in the Senate. That put her one step away from infiltrating the highest court with her liberal activist ways, the ad suggests, where she can create havoc for conservative causes. Who knew it was all Santorum's fault?

The ad's got problems. Romney's folks were banking on listeners' limited knowledge. Yes, it was President Barack Obama who appointed Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court. But it was President George H.W. Bush who launched her judicial career by appointing her to the District Court for the Southern District of New York in the early 1990s.

Details, details.

Jay Sekulow, a leading conservative lawyer, is the voice of the ad. He notes that Santorum approved Sotomayor while "29 of his Republican colleagues voted against her."

True. And 25 Senate Republicans supported her. Santorum wasn't the only one.

"With Mitt Romney, we know what kind of judges we will get," Sekulow concludes.

Sometimes you do know what you'll get when it comes to judicial candidates, and conservatives and liberals alike wish for litmus tests. But with Sotomayor, no one had a crystal ball during her confirmation. She's a bit of a judicial enigma. Her stands on some of the hot-button social issues are unknown.

She won praise from Planned Parenthood and gay and lesbian advocates, but they were hedging their bets.

Sotomayor's only previous ruling that dealt with abortion was one where she sided with the pro-life arguments. The case involved a policy that prohibited giving government funding to groups that either perform or advocate for abortion in foreign countries.

She never directly expressed her judicial view on the core issue, the constitutionality of abortion.

Meanwhile, she's been very clear about how she views the Constitution. This statement, from her Second Circuit confirmation hearing, could be used in a political ad positioning her as the patroness of conservative causes, not the devil's mistress: "I don't believe we should bend the Constitution under any circumstance. It says what it says. We should do honor to it."

Interestingly, Sotomayor exemplifies a character trait that Romney sorely lacks: the emotional intelligence to read social class. She's had to learn and negotiate the divergent protocols and unwritten social codes of her childhood neighborhood in the Bronx, of her parochial high school, of Princeton and Yale Law School, and then of private law practice and the federal bench.

Unlike Romney, Sotomayor wasn't raised the entitled child of a business executive and governor. She was raised by a widow and lived in public housing.

No one can change the facts of their birth. Nevertheless, Romney's stiffness and many gaffes peg him as an elitist par excellence, giving voters reason to wonder if he can relate to people born to less privilege.

It's possible that campaign flatulence like the anti-Sotomayor ad helped put Romney over the top in Ohio. After all, you can fool some of the people some of the time. But by maligning a public figure with real depth and complexity, Romney's operatives invited thinking people to ponder the essentially hollow character of the Republican front-runner.

Good luck with that strategy in November.


Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star.