Originally published on May 26, 2009
President Barack Obama today nominated Sonia Sotomayor to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, drawing praise from Hispanic lawmakers and advocacy groups, and rebukes from some Republican leaders.
If confirmed, Sotomayor, who has served on the federal bench for 17 years, would be the first Hispanic justice to serve on the nation’s high court. If approved by Senate, she would bring more federal judicial experience to the Supreme Court than any justice confirmed since 1932, when Justice Benjamin Cardozo was appointed after 18 years on the federal bench.
The nomination comes four months before the start of the Supreme Court’s fall term, and President Obama said he hopes the Senate will confirm her appointment by August. But Republicans warn that it might take longer than that to thoroughly vet her record.
“Our Democratic colleagues have often remarked that the Senate is not a ‘rubber stamp,'” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement today. “Accordingly, we trust they will ensure there is adequate time to prepare for this nomination, and a full and fair opportunity to question the nominee and debate her qualifications.”
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus today released a statement praising the selection of Sotomayor, a 54-year-old woman of Puerto Rican descent who rose to prominence despite being raised poor in the Bronx.
“The nomination of such an overwhelmingly qualified judge to serve on the Supreme Court should be celebrated by all Americans,” said Congressman Charles A. Gonzalez (D-TX), and the CHC’s first Vice Chair. “The additional fact that the President Obama’s nominee will be the first Hispanic on our nation’s highest court is significant and is tangible proof of the strength derived by the diversity represented in American society.”
But in a sign of a potential fight to come, some Republicans have already launched an assault.
Former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee blasted her as a “far left” candidate, but got her first name wrong in the process.
“The appointment of Maria Sotomayor for the Supreme Court is the clearest indication yet that President Obama’s campaign promises to be a centrist and think in a bipartisan way were mere rhetoric,” he said today in a statement. “Sotomayor comes from the far left and will likely leave us with something akin to the ‘Extreme Court’ that could mark a major shift. … If she is confirmed, then we need to take the blindfold off Lady Justice.”
Republicans have tapped a former Justice Department lawyer who worked under President George W. Bush to help the GOP pore over Sotomayor’s record. Elisebeth Cook served as Bush’s assistant attorney general for legal policy.
Meanwhile, not everyone on the left is sold. The New Republic, a left-of-center American Magazine, published a piece in early May called “The Case Against Sotomayor.” The story quoted legal professionals who were critical of her abilities. One unnamed former Second Circuit clerk for another judge said Sotomayor is “not that smart and was a bully on the bench.” The article, written by Jeffrey Rosen, maintained that her decisions sometimes missed the forest for the trees. But it also quoted unnamed sources who praised her. One former clerk for a judge said, “She’s an incredibly impressive person, she’s not shy or apologetic about who she is.”
For his part, President Obama said he selected Sotomayor largely for her “rigorous intellect” and “mastery of the law.”
In a presidential video released this morning, Obama also praised her ability to make decisions “without any particular ideology or agenda, but rather, a fidelity to the Constitution.”
“A judge’s job is to interpret, not make law,” he said.
Sotomayor is a graduate of Yale Law School. Described as a centrist by some and a liberal by others, Sotomayor’s high-profile decisions include the go-ahead for The Wall Street Journal to publish the suicide note of White House attorney Vince Foster. She also sided with labor in the Major League Baseball strike of 1995.
Although widely supported by Democrats, she has enjoyed broad bipartisan support in the past.
In 1992, President George H.W. Bush appointed her to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. In 1998, she was elevated by President Clinton to the seat she currently holds on the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
On Tuesday morning, the Hispanic Bar Association of DC called Sotomayor “one of the most accomplished jurors of her generation.”
“Sotomayor does not shy away from tough decisions,” association officials said in a statement today, citing her 1995 decision that ended the 232-day Major League Baseball players’ strike.
The association also credited her for being “tough on crime.”
“Judge Sotomayor has consistently given police wide leeway to conduct searches and effect arrests … particularly where there are terrorism or public safety concerns involved,” the statement said.
Republicans, meanwhile, are expected to scrutinize her recent decision in an affirmative action case. In Ricci v. DeStefano, Sotomayor sided with two other judges in a ruling against white firefighters in New Haven, Conn. who were denied a promotion after the city tossed the results of an exam that failed to boost the standing of any black candidates. The firefighters appealed, and case will be heard by the Supreme Court.
Sotomayor was diagnosed with diabetes at age 8. Her father, a tool-and-die worker with a third-grade education, died a year later. She and her younger brother were raised by her single mother, who worked as a nurse and sent her children to Catholic school.
Sotomayor was the class valedictorian of Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, and was awarded a full scholarship to Princeton University. There, she graduated summa cum laude. She attended Yale Law School, and served as editor or the Yale Law Journal. She obtained her law degree in 1979.
After graduation Sotomayor joined the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office as a criminal prosecutor, and worked on murder, police brutality and child pornography cases. She worked under District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who still holds the office, and who described her as a “fearless and effective prosecutor.”
She served the District Attorneys office for four-and-a-half years before entering private practice, where she focused on intellectual property, international law and arbitration.