Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, North America

U.S.: Obama Picks Latina Judge as First Supreme Court Nominee

Jim Lobe*

WASHINGTON, May 26 2009 (IPS) - In a nomination that will almost certainly be approved by the U.S. Senate, President Barack Obama Tuesday announced the selection of Sonia Sotomayor, a federal appeals court judge whose parents were from Puerto Rico, to the nine-member Supreme Court.

President Obama with Sonia Sotomayor at the White House on May 26, 2009. Credit: White House photo/Pete Souza

President Obama with Sonia Sotomayor at the White House on May 26, 2009. Credit: White House photo/Pete Souza

If confirmed, Sotomayor, who grew up in a public housing project in New York City, would become the first-ever Hispanic Supreme Court Justice and would join Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the Court’s only female members. She would be only the third woman to serve on the country’s highest court.

While praising her “rigorous intellect” and respect for law and precedent, Obama, in announcing her nomination, stressed that her determined rise from poverty to the top-most ranks of the judiciary was also a major factor in his decision.

“It is experience that can give a person a common touch and a sense of compassion; an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live,” he said. “And that is why it is a necessary ingredient in the kind of justice we need on the Supreme Court.”

Democratic lawmakers and liberal commentators greeted her nomination with strong approval, while national Hispanic organisations hailed it with undisguised glee.

“Today is a monumental day for Latinos,” said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR). “Finally, we see ourselves represented on the highest court in the land. Judge Sotomayor’s story personifies the American Dream for so many Latinos in this country.”

Republican members of Congress were more reserved in their reaction, in part because Sotomayor was first appointed to the federal bench by former President George H.W. Bush. Right-wing groups assailed the appointment, accusing her of holding left-wing views and being an “activist judge” too eager to overrule actions by the legislative and executive branches of government.

“Judge Sotomayor appears to subscribe to a very liberal judicial philosophy that considers it appropriate for judges to impose their personal views from the bench,” charged Tony Perkins, of the far-right Family Research Council (FRC). “President Obama promised us a jurist committed to the ‘rule of law,’ but, instead, he appears to have nominated a legislator to the Supreme Court.”

Sotomayor, who was long considered to be among Obama’s top choices for any vacancy on the Court, will now face confirmation hearings in the Senate, which must approve her nomination by a simple majority vote. Democrats and the two independent senators who vote with them hold 59 of the 100 seats in the upper chamber, virtually assuring her confirmation by October, even if Republicans mount a filibuster that requires a 60-vote super-majority to overcome.

Moreover, according to Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the University of California School of Law at Irvine, “it is highly unlikely that Republicans are going to want to strongly oppose the first Latina selected for the high court… It doesn’t make sense for Republicans to fight a losing battle that risks alienating a key and growing political constituency, Hispanic voters.”

A co-equal branch of government, the Supreme Court can overrule both the executive and legislative branches, often by finding that their actions violate the U.S. Constitution. Members of the Court have lifetime tenure.

Souter, who was appointed to the Supreme Court by the elder Bush, is widely considered a centrist – and a traitor by the Republican right – who generally voted with the more liberal faction on key decisions, many of which were decided by a 5-4 margin, including the 2008 case that guaranteed habeas corpus rights to prisoners held at the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In such cases, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was appointed by former President Ronald Reagan, has generally cast the “swing” vote.

As a result, the replacement of Souter by Sotomayor is not expected to mark a decisive shift in the overall ideological balance on the Court, although Sotomayor’s relative youth – she is 54 years old – may energise the Court’s liberal wing, which includes Justices John Paul Stevens, Stephen Breyer, and Ginsburg.

At the same time, however, Obama’s decision to pick her offers additional insights into the importance he attaches to ensuring ethnic diversity at all levels of government and to make pragmatic, rather than ideological, decisions capable of rallying support from both centrist and liberal forces in the body politic.

Thus, although considered generally liberal in orientation, her reputation is more centrist than that of Ginsburg and Breyer, both of whom were nominated by former President Bill Clinton, or other candidates reportedly considered for the post by Obama, including Judge Diane Wood of Chicago or Solicitor General Elena Kagan.

“With this pick, Obama has missed an opportunity to tap a liberal intellectual giant like William Brennan [a strongly liberal justice who played a leading role in the Court’s expansion of individual liberties and civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s] who will have a major impact on the Court for years to come,” said Marjorie Cohen, president of the left-wing National Lawyers Guild and a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law.

“George W. Bush didn’t hesitate to choose two unabashedly right-wing justices,” she noted, adding that other candidates might have “provided a true progressive counterweight” to the four solidly right-wing justices on the Court – Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Chief Justice John Roberts. Alito and Roberts were appointed by Bush.

In surmounting many obstacles to reach her current prominence, Sotomayor’s upbringing and career echo some of those experienced by Obama himself. Her parents moved from Puerto Rico to the South Bronx during World War II. Her father, a blue-collar worker with only a third-grade education, died when she was nine years old, one year after she was herself diagnosed with diabetes. Her mother, who joined Sotomayor at the White House for Tuesday’s announcement, worked as a nurse at a methadone clinic.

Nonetheless, she graduated with highest honours from Princeton University and gained her law degree from Yale Law School where she was editor of the prestigious Yale Law Journal. After service briefly as a criminal prosecutor, she practiced commercial law before her nomination in 1991 by the elder Bush to the federal court in New York. In 1997, Clinton nominated her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, a jurisdiction that specialises in financial and commercial cases. She was confirmed the following year.

In addition to her overcoming the many hardships of her youth, Obama noted Monday that she has more experience as a judge than any other current member of the Supreme Court.

In her remarks, Sotomayor echoed Obama’s emphasis on the importance of life experience in carrying out her work as a judge. “I strive never to forget the real-world consequences of my decisions on individuals, businesses, and government,” she said.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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