Fulfilling his vow to choose someone with a powerful intellect who demonstrates compassion and a common touch, President Barack Obama made history by nominating to the U.S. Supreme Court a Hispanic woman who grew up in the south Bronx housing projects. Judge Sonia Sotomayor is an accomplished jurist whose legal career is augmented by a remarkable life story. Short of some unexpected revelation, Sotomayor appears to be a smart, pragmatic choice who should win confirmation.
In Sotomayor, the president selected someone with humble roots and an Ivy League education to replace retiring Justice David Souter. She has experience both as a criminal prosecutor and as a corporate lawyer, as a federal district trial judge and as an appellate judge. She has previously been nominated to the federal bench by both a Republican president and a Democratic president, and she has won confirmation with bipartisan support in the Senate. When Sotomayor was elevated to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by President Bill Clinton, her confirmation received 25 Republican votes, including Florida Republican Sen. Connie Mack and seven Republicans who are in the Senate today.
Sotomayor's life story somewhat shields her against political attack from conservatives, although the barbs on the Internet and cable television began early Tuesday. Born to a Puerto Rican family, her working-class father died when she was 9 years old and her mother worked as a nurse to support the family. She grew up in public housing but made her way through Princeton University and Yale Law School, excelling in both. When Obama announced Sotomayor's nomination, he said Sotomayor brought not only knowledge and experience but "wisdom accumulated from an inspiring life's journey." The parallels between Obama's biography and hers are compelling.
Sotomayor already is being attacked on her record as an appellate judge and some impolitic comments she has made over the years. Sotomayor remarked in 2005 during a panel at Duke University that the federal appellate courts are "where policy is made." That fuels fears among her conservative critics who will argue she is a liberal activist who won't follow the law if it conflicts with her personal agenda. She also gave ammunition to those who believe that her decision-making will be driven by ethnic considerations when she told an audience at a Berkeley symposium in 2001 that the life experiences of a Latina woman would lead her to "reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." Sotomayor is going to have to explain these statements in a way that demonstrates her respect for the rule of law.
During the confirmation hearing Sotomayor also will be asked to clarify her decision in a reverse-discrimination case brought by 17 white (and one Hispanic) New Haven, Conn., firefighters that is currently on appeal before the Supreme Court. Sotomayor and two other appellate judges sided with the city, permitting it to invalidate an exam after no African-American firefighters scored high enough to be considered for a promotion.
But after 11 years on the appellate bench there is little evidence that Sotomayor ignores the law in favor of a political agenda. For example, in 2002 she ruled on behalf of the federal government's right to use public money to promote an antiabortion position.
Senate Republicans know that mounting too great an offensive against Sotomayor may backfire politically. As the first Hispanic nominee to the high court, her confirmation hearing will be watched carefully by the growing Hispanic community, an increasingly important voting bloc. Coupling the political realities with Sotomayor's impeccable credentials, her path to confirmation should be predictably noisy but relatively smooth.