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Hispanic Heritage

Sonia Sotomayor

Sonia Sotomayor became the first Hispanic-American woman to be nominated to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, on May 26, 2009. Nominated by President Barack Obama to replace retiring Associate Justice David Souter, Sotomayor declared that her heart was "bursting with gratitude" to her family and friends, and called the nomination "the most humbling honor of my life." President Obama called Sotomayor "an inspiring woman who I believe will make a great justice."

Many journalists have noted that Sotomayor's rise from obscurity to the threshold of the high court follows the traditional up-by-the-bootstraps life story Americans have always found inspiring. Sotomayor was born in New York City, the elder of two children, to parents of Puerto Rican birth. The Sotomayor family lived in a housing project called Bronxdale Houses in the Bronx. As a child, Sonia was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at age 8. One year later her father died, leaving Sotomayor's mother, a registered nurse, to raise her daughter and son alone, putting both children through Catholic school. Celina Sotomayor emphasized to her children the importance of a strong education as a key to fulfilling their dreams. "She struggled to put my brother and me through school," Sotomayor later recalled. "For my mother, education has always been the top priority in all our lives. It was because of her that we were the only kids I knew in the housing projects to have an Encyclopedia Britannica."

During the years of her upbringing, Sotomayor became fascinated by Perry Mason, the character portrayed by Raymond Burr on a popular television series that ran from the mid 1950s through the mid 1960s. Inspired by this heroic character, a defender of the wrongly accused, she dreamed of someday becoming an attorney. Upon graduating from high school, she was accepted into Princeton University, graduating summa cum laude from that institution in 1976, with a bachelor's degree in history. Three years later she earned a law degree from Yale University, where she had edited the Yale Law Journal.

After graduating from Yale, Sotomayor worked for several years as an assistant district attorney in New York. She married for a short time, but her marriage ended and with no children. Sotomayor then became a private-practice attorney specializing in intellectual property at the New York-based firm of Pavia & Harcourt. In 1991 she was nominated by President George H. W. Bush to fill a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. (Interestingly, a year earlier, Bush had nominated David Souter--the justice Sotomayor is slated to replace--to the U.S. Supreme Court.) Bush's successor, President Bill Clinton, nominated Sotomayor to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, and she was confirmed by the Republican-majority Senate in 1997.

On May 1, 2009 David Souter announced his retirement, and within a short time President Obama's short list of nominees was released to and discussed among the national press. Most of the candidates listed were women and two were Hispanic--Sotomayor being among the two. Hispanic and women's groups encouraged Obama to nominate a Hispanic or a woman, in part to fill a gap left by Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who retired in 2006. In speaking of the task of finding a replacement for Souter, Obama stated that he would search for a justice who embraces both the rule of law and "the quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles." His announcement of Sotomayor's selection was greeted with joy by many Americans; with a cautious wait-and-see attitude by many others.

If confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee and then by the Senate, Sotomayor is expected to be a firm anchor on the activist liberal wing of the Supreme Court. In light of this, much debate among American political commentators will center upon the perennial question of whether jurists should interpret established law or (in effect) create new laws, a debate between the ends and means of law.

From the conservative standpoint, Sotomayor's past decisions and outspoken belief that ethnicity necessarily flavors one's jurisprudence, make Sotomayor a controversial addition to the court. Conservative critics focus upon two remarks made by Sotomayor in speeches within the past decade. In the first, in a speech delivered in 2001 at the University of California at Berkeley, Sotomayor claimed, "Our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging," adding her belief that "a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." A few years later, speaking at the Duke University School of Law, Sotomayor asserted that a "court of appeals is where policy is made." She then quickly added, "And I know--I know this is on tape, and I should never say that because we don't make law. I know. Okay, I know. I'm not promoting it. I'm not advocating it." Wendy Long, legal counsel to the conservative Judicial Confirmation Network, succinctly summarized much of the conservative argument against the qualifications of President Obama's nominee for the high court, saying, "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. She thinks that judges should dictate policy, and that one's sex, race, and ethnicity ought to affect the decisions one renders from the bench."

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama), the ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has stated that "if the president nominates an individual who will allow personal preferences and political views to corrupt his or her decision making, he will put before the public a central question: Are we willing to trade America's heritage of a fair and neutral judiciary--anchored in the rule of written law that applies equally to all people--for a high court composed of robed politicians who apply the law differently based on their personal feelings toward a particular person or issue?"

But, as noted in Charlie Savage's article "A Judge's View of Judging Is on the Record" in The New York Times, Sotomayor has said that when considering legal decisions, she has striven to question her own "opinions, sympathies, and prejudices," and tried to be impartial. In her foreword to The International Judge: An Introduction to the Men and Women Who Decide the World's Cases, by Daniel Terris, Cesare P. R. Romano, and Leigh Swigart (2007) Sotomayor wrote that "all judges have cases that touch our passions deeply, but we all struggle constantly with remaining impartial" and letting reason and the rule of law hold sway. Courts, she added, "are in large part the product of their membership and their judges' ability to think through and across their own intellectual and professional backgrounds" to find common ground.

Liberal and Democratic supporters of Sotomayor have noted that her more controversial remarks are taken in snippets from public speeches, not her judicial rulings. They note that with Obama's fellow Democrats numerically dominating the Senate there is little chance that Republicans can stop Sotomayor's confirmation--and they note that opponents of the nominee run the strong risk of appearing anti-Hispanic or anti-female if they should question her qualifications too pointedly. As columnist Dylan Loewe noted in The Huffington Post, "The Republican leadership has already indicated that they view the fight over Obama's Supreme Court nominee as a good opportunity to unify their base and that, among those on the short list, they were most eager to go after Sotomayor. But if they follow through, if they do decide to spend the next two and half months waging an impossible fight against a nominee whose confirmation is all but guaranteed, they may cause permanent damage. If the Hispanic community abandons the Republican party altogether, the Republican party can abandon any hope of regaining power in American politics."

As noted in a CNN backgrounder on Sotomayor, "Supporters say her appointment history, along with what they describe as her moderate-liberal views, will give her some bipartisan backing in the Senate." If confirmed, she would become the first Hispanic and the third woman to serve on the nation's highest court.

Source Citation

Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale. 2009.

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