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First Hispanic Heads to the Supreme Court

Sonia Sotomayor easily won confirmation to the nation’s highest court, but not without controversy.

En español | The confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court made history Thursday. She is the first Hispanic, and third woman, to sit on the high court.

Although some GOP senators sought to portray Sotomayor as an outside-the-mainstream liberal guided by prejudices, the Senate vote to confirm Sotomayor was decisive, 68-31, and bipartisan, with nine Republicans, including Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, joining all Democrats but Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who is sick, in voting to confirm her.

President Obama said he that was "pleased and deeply gratified" with the Senate's "historic vote" and that Sotomayor will able to take her seat when the Supreme Court convenes in October.

"Like so many aspects of this nation, I'm filled with pride at this achievement," Obama said.

Hispanic advocacy groups also applauded the confirmation.

"As the first Latina on the nation’s Supreme Court, Judge Sotomayor has achieved a political milestone for the Latino community that will greatly enrich the administration of justice for all Americans," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in statement released after the vote.

A federal appeals judge from the Bronx, Sotomayor, 55, was promoted as a bright, accomplished jurist by President Obama and Senate supporters.

"Those who struggle to pin the label of judicial activist on Judge Sotomayor are met by her solid record of judging based on the law," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt. during the debate on her nomination.  "She is a restrained, experienced, and thoughtful judge who has shown no biases in her rulings."

Hispanic groups and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which have long lobbied to have a Latino on the high court, are thrilled about Sotomayor’s appointment.
“Today is a monumental day for Latinos,” National Council of La Raza President Janet Murguia said when President Obama made his choice in May. “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.”

Sotomayor, who has served for more than a decade on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 2nd District, in New York City, will not only change the ethnic composition of the court; she will also tilt the court in a younger direction. Justice David Souter, whose upcoming retirement gave President Obama the opportunity to nominate Sotomayor, is 69, while the 54-year-old Sotomayor would be the second youngest justice—only Chief Justice John Roberts is younger, and by just six months. She would be the current court’s fourth member of the huge and influential baby boom generation (born between 1946 and 1964), as well as the second woman and sixth Roman Catholic.

Many of her supporters say Sotomayor’s background, and her rags-to-robes life story, give her a perspective lacking in the current court’s make-up.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., one of Sotomayor’s most ardent supporters, said that as the son of Hispanic immigrants who grew up in a tenement in Union City, New Jersey, he shares a similar background with Sotomayor.

“I never dreamed I would be standing on this floor to vote for a highly qualified Latina for the Supreme Court,” Menendez said during the Senate’s debate on the nomination. “This is America.”

Henry Solano, interim president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense & Education Fund, said, “having a Latino on the Supreme Court provides a crucial perspective that will inform the court’s consideration of such cases.” And legal analysts say Sotomayor has usually sided with plaintiffs in many discrimination cases concerning minorities and people with disabilities.

Her record on cases impacting older Americans appears to be more mixed. Sotomayor has interpreted the federal Americans with Disabilities Act—which affects many older Americans—broadly. But 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. Conversely, 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 that the inmate should be permitted to sue the private facility that ran the prison.

Her biography has become familiar to millions of Americans.

As many Americans know by now, Sotomayor’s parents were born in Puerto Rico and moved to the Bronx, where the family lived in a housing project. Like the president who nominated her, Sotomayor was raised by a single mother—her father having died when she was nine years old.

“It is experience that can give a person a common touch,” President Obama said in nominating her. “She’s faced down barriers… and lived out the American Dream that brought her parents here so long ago.” He also called Sotomayor—who graduated summa cum laude from Princeton, attended Yale Law School, and was editor of the Yale Law Journal—an “inspiring woman” who has a “rigorous intellect” and a “mastery of the law.” 

During three days of Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings in July, Sotomayor calmly defended her record. “Many senators have asked me about my judicial philosophy,” she said. “It is simple: fidelity to the law.”

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. Six years later, 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.

Many Republicans also balked at supporting Sotomayor’s candidacy to the Supreme Court. During her confirmation hearings, GOP opponents focused on 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 appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court, which in June overturned the lower court’s decision.

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he was concerned that Sotomayor, whose appointment is for life, “will promote some long-term, liberal agenda.”

But much of the furor over Sotomayor was not focused on any of the hundreds of opinions she issued during 17 years as a judge, but on a remark during a 2002 speech at the University of California, Berkley about the experiences of a Latina judge. Sotomayor said she would hope that a "wise Latina woman, with the richness of her experiences" would reach a better conclusion than a white man "who hasn't lived that life."

During her confirmation hearings, Sotomayor repudiated that statement, saying it was a regrettable “rhetorical flourish that fell flat’’ and does not reflect her views.

“I want to state upfront, unequivocally and without doubt, I do not believe that any ethnic, racial, or gender group has an advantage in sound judging,’’ she said.

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