President Barack Obama made history when he nominated Sonia Sotomayor, a federal appeals court judge from the Bronx, to the Supreme Court.
If confirmed, Sotomayor, 54, would be the first Hispanic to serve on the high court. Hispanic advocacy groups and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which had promoted Sotomayor’s candidacy, applaud Obama’s choice.
"Today is a monumental day for Latinos," National Council of La Raza President Janet Murguia said yesterday in a statement. "The president wanted a justice who is not only a respected jurist but also understands how the law affects the lives of everyday people. Judge Sotomayor embodies those qualities."
Henry Solano, interim president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense & Education Fund, called Obama’s choice "a historic, significant, and meaningful nomination." In a release, Solano said, "At a time when the Hispanic community is at the heart of a number of highly politicized issues and faces attacks on our civil liberties, having a Latino on the Supreme Court provides a crucial perspective that will inform the court’s consideration of such cases."
Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez, D-New York, who heads the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, agrees. "Judge Sotomayor brings with her the experience, discipline, integrity, commitment, and intellectual prowess she has cultivated throughout an extensive career," Velasquez said in a statement. "She has consistently demonstrated a balanced, clear-minded respect for our laws and our Constitution."
Sotomayor, who served for more than a decade on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 2nd District, in New York, would replace retiring Justice David Souter, 69, becoming the second youngest justice—Chief Justice John Roberts is six months younger—and tilting the court somewhat younger. She would be the second woman and the sixth Roman Catholic on the current court.
Obama called Sotomayor an "inspiring woman" who has a "rigorous intellect" and a "mastery of the law." She graduated summa cum laude from Princeton, attended Yale Law School, and was editor of the Yale Law Journal.
It was a Republican, President George H.W. Bush, who first appointed Sotomayor to the federal bench. He nominated her to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in 1991.
In 1997, former President Bill Clinton appointed her to her current seat—but not without a fight. Concerned her appointment would make her a likely Supreme Court candidate, Republicans held up her confirmation for more than a year.
A political fight is already brewing about Sotomayor’s nomination.
Conservatives have criticized her as a liberal judicial activist, although her supporters say she has a record of mainstream opinions.
It’s unlikely Sotomayor’s opponents will have enough votes in the Senate to block her confirmation, but she will face tough scrutiny in her confirmation hearings.
One opinion her opponents are likely to focus on is her vote, as part of a panel, to uphold a decision to throw out a set of New Haven, Connecticut, fire department promotion tests because no minority candidates scored high on those tests. White firefighters who did well have appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said Sotomayor’s nomination would be treated "fairly," but Republicans would "thoroughly examine her record."
Legal analysts say Sotomayor has usually sided with plaintiffs in many discrimination cases concerning minorities and people with disabilities. She has interpreted the federal Americans with Disabilities Act—which affects many older Americans—broadly.
Sotomayor has a mixed record on age discrimination cases. In a dissenting opinion in a 2006 case, she wrote that the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act did not protect a 70-year-old Methodist minister from the church’s mandatory retirement policy.
But she sided with a federal inmate in his late 50s who suffered a heart attack after being ordered to quickly climb five flights of stairs back to his cell. Sotomayor agreed the inmate should be permitted to sue the private facility that ran the prison.
Not only her qualifications and record led Obama to nominate Sotomayor—it was her life experience. Her parents were born in Puerto Rico and moved to the Bronx, where the family lived in a housing project.
"I am an ordinary person who has been blessed with extraordinary opportunities and experiences," Sotomayor said at the news conference announcing her nomination.
Sotomayor’s life story mirror’s Obama’s. Like the president, Sotomayor was raised by a single mother—her father died when she was nine years old.
And like Obama, Sotomayor overcame any obstacle to success that may have been posed by her modest beginnings.
Obama says her background strengthened her candidacy. "It is experience that can give a person a common touch," he said. "She’s faced down barriers… and lived out the American Dream that brought her parents here so long ago."
After the president announced her nomination, Sotomayor thanked her family members, especially her mother, Celina, for their support.
"She worked often two jobs to help support us after dad died," Sotomayor said of her mother, who was a nurse. "I have often said I that I am all I am because of her, and I am only half the woman she is."
Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, says he was moved when Sotomayor spoke of her mother. "I thought, 'Wow, this really is a Latina!'" Vargas says.
Vargas says Sotomayor’s road to confirmation may be a little rocky, buy he’s confident she’ll win Senate approval since she’s already been through the process. "I would expect any nomination from the President to come under fire. But she’s made it through [the Senate] twice already."
He also wants Obama Sotomayor's nomination to be more than political payback to Latinos. "I hope it is an indication that if you want an effective judiciary and an effective Supreme Court, you need the perspective of the nation’s second-largest community," Vargas said.
The President settled on Sotomayor during the Memorial Day weekend, passing over others on his short list—Diane Wood, a U.S. Court of Appeals judge in Chicago; Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano; and U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan.
Obama hopes the Senate will confirm Sotomayor in time for her to join the Supreme Court for its next session in October. But Republicans say they want plenty of time to review her record.