Politics

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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.

Obama Says Supreme Court Nominee Understands "Everyday" Americans

May 26, 2009 05:55 PM
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
President Obama’s pick to replace Justice David Souter cites family, hard work, and real-world experience among her qualifications.

Sotomayor Would Replace Retiring Justice David Souter

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President Obama announced his nomination of Sotomayor to replace Justice Souter on Tuesday morning. If the Senate confirms the nomination—the first by a Democratic president in the last 15 years—Sotomayor will be the first Hispanic and the third female justice to serve on the Court, the Associated Press reports.

According to AP, Obama has said that “he wanted a justice who combined intellect and empathy—the ability to understand the troubles of everyday Americans.”

The U.S. Senate will have four months in which to complete the confirmation process before the start of the next Court term in October. According to SCOTUSblog’s Tom Goldstein, Sotomayor’s confirmation is almost certain, “[a]bsent the discovery of an ethical transgression.” Goldstein also highlights the significance of Sotomayor’s nomination as a “historic landmark” for the Hispanic community, which he identifies as “a vital electoral group now and in the future.”

Background: 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.

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Reactions: 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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