Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama looks on as his Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor speaks
in the East Room of the White House.

Sotomayor Speaks at First Session of Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings

July 13, 2009 01:20 PM
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
The hearing began today with opening statements from Senate Judiciary Committee members and a formal statement from Sonia Sotomayor.

Sotomayor Faces Judiciary Committee

Sotomayor’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings began this morning and will continue until Thursday or Friday, depending on the time it takes for the Judiciary Committee to reach a decision, The Huffington Post explains.

According to the Associated Press, the first session of the hearing will include speeches from members of the committee, together with Sotomayor’s opening statement, her first public declaration since her nomination on May 26. 

"For Sotomayor, it is a critical moment to set the public's perception of her," Doug Kendall, founder of the Constitutional Accountability Center in Washington, told Reuters. "She will define herself for the country in her opening statement. But for senators, it is much more about stating their case about the future of the Supreme Court itself.""

In a statement cited by the AP, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, expressed his confidence in Sotomayor’s nomination. "She's been a judge for all Americans," Leahy said. "She'll be a justice for all Americans."

According to Reuters, both Democrats (openly) and Republicans (privately) concede that Sotomayor will in all likelihood get the nomination. Republicans in particular must be especially careful in their criticisms in order to avoid offending the fast-growing electoral segment of U.S. Hispanics. As Stephen Wermiel, a law professor at American University, told Reuters, "They have a tricky challenge. They are trying to attack her use of race without impugning her race, and that's not easy to do."

Reactions: Sotomayor’s dual identity

According to Wall Street Journal writer Jess Bravin, the confirmation hearing will bring out two different images of Judge Sotomayor. Democrats will focus on Sotomayor’s experience and reasoned opinions, striving to present her as a “meticulous judicial workhorse, impartially applying the law, even as her rise from the projects marks her as a quintessential American story.” Republicans, on the other hand, will concentrate on bringing out Sotomayor’s extremism and racial activism, portraying her as a woman who “could use her Supreme Court seat to even the scales for minority groups she considers victimized by American history.”

Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) believes Sotomayor’s performance can be inferred from her past reactions and rulings. "There's no better way to predict how a judicial nominee will perform on the bench than by their previous judicial records," The Wall Street Journal quotes him as saying. Curt Levey, president of the Committee for Justice, disagrees with Schumer's view, arguing that the criticism that Sotomayor has received "is not based on how she ruled, it's based on what she said.”

Newsweek takes a look at Sotomayor’s years as an undergraduate at Princeton in order to better understand “how her mind works and how she approaches problems.” Even though she never had to face outright discrimination, the subtle elitism that dominates the Princeton social sphere made Sotomayor increasingly aware of her ethnic background and pushed her to assert herself against racial biases. Considering Sotomayor’s background and extensive judicial experience, Newsweek wonders if it will be the “Latina firebrand” or the “model of judicial restraint” who will "sit on the highest court in the land."

Biography: Who is Sonia Sotomayor?

Sotomayor, 54, is currently a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals. Her parents, originally from Puerto Rico, moved to a housing project in the South Bronx soon before she was born. Sonia had to deal with difficult circumstances from a very early age; she developed diabetes when she was only 8 years old, and her father, a laborer who didn’t speak English, died when she was 9. Sonia’s mother, a nurse, worked two jobs in order to support her two children and provide them with an education. According to AP, Sotomayor describes herself as a “Newyorkrican,” incorporating her Hispanic heritage into her American upbringing.

Sotomayor’s desire to be judge sprouted during her childhood, inspired by Nancy Drew novels and the TV show “Perry Mason.” "I was going to college and I was going to become an attorney, and I knew that when I was 10," Sotomayor told the Daily News in a 1998 interview. "Ten. That's no jest."

Sotomayor completed her undergraduate studies at Princeton University, and graduated with great distinction from Yale Law School. She then spent seven years working in public service, both as a prosecutor and private attorney. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush appointed Sotomayor as a federal judge for the Southern District of New York, and in 1997, President Bill Clinton chose her as judge for the Court of Appeals, AP reports.

Background: Sotomayor’s nomination elicits criticism

Although Sotomayor has overwhelming qualifications and experience as a private litigator, prosecutor, trial and appellate judge, her nomination has attracted considerable criticism. In his blog “Thinking Right,” political commentator Jim Wooten mentions a 2001 speech that Sotomayor delivered at the University of California in which she suggested that gender, race, ethnicity and life experiences could influence decisions ruled from the bench. “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life,” Sotomayor said.

Similarly, The New York Times political blog “The Caucus” reports that conservative groups have reacted to Obama’s decision ”with sharp criticism.” Wendy E. Long, counsel to the Judicial Confirmation Network, is quoted as saying that “Judge Sotomayor is a liberal judicial activist of the first order who thinks her own personal political agenda is more important than the law as written.”

Political commentator Jeffrey Rosen published a critique in The New Republic in which he elaborated on concerns about Sotomayor’s “temperament, her judicial craftsmanship and … her ability to provide an intellectual counterweight to the conservative justices, as well as a clear liberal alternative.”

Still, the strong Democratic majority in the Senate makes Sotomayor’s nomination a likely case for approval. According to Tom Goldstein, “the White House’s biggest task is simply demonstrating that Judge Sotomayor is the most qualified candidate, not a choice based on her gender and ethnicity.”

Related Topic: Sandra Day O’Connor

Sandra Day O’Connor had to endure a great deal of gender-based prejudice before she became the first woman to serve as a Supreme Court justice. During her years on America’s highest court, O’Connor established a moderate position, developing a reputation for appreciating the fine nuances of the law, and for casting the deciding vote in key cases when the Court was split. In 2005, O’Connor retired from the Supreme Court to spend more time with her husband, who was in declining health and suffering from Alzheimer’s.

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