President Barack Obama announced Tuesday he will nominate Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2d Circuit to the Supreme Court, extolling her “wisdom accumulated from an inspiring life’s journey” and setting her on course to become the court’s first Hispanic and third woman in history.
Defying criticism that the empathy Obama sought in a nominee will color her judgment, Sotomayor pledged “never to forget the real world consequences of my decisions.”
Within minutes of the announcement Tuesday, conservative groups vowed opposition or tough scrutiny, calling her a liberal whose votes will be even further left than the man she would replace, retiring Justice David Souter. “Judge Sotomayor is a liberal judicial activist of the first order,” said Wendy Long of the conservative Judicial Confirmation Network.
But supporters said her lengthy résumé and her lesser-known qualities of collegiality and persuasiveness could make her a powerful force on the Court for years to come. “Judge Sotomayor has more federal judicial experience than any justice nominated to the Supreme Court in the past 100 years,” said Nan Aron of the liberal Alliance for Justice, a veteran of confirmation battles. With Sotomayor’s professional record and compelling life story, as well as a Democratic majority in the Senate, liberals were confident Sotomayor will be confirmed.
Obama introduced Sotomayor to the nation Tuesday as someone who “will bring to the court…not only the knowledge and experience acquired over a course of a brilliant legal career, but the wisdom accumulated from an inspiring life’s journey.”
Sotomayor, 54, said her own “experiences, personal and professional, have helped me appreciate the variety of perspectives that present themselves in every case that I hear.”
Conservatives have attacked the empathetic approach to judging as activist and not rooted in the Constitution or statutes. Sotomayor also has been characterized in the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary by anonymous lawyers who appeared before her as combative jurist.
Judge Robert Katzmann, a colleague of Sotomayor’s on the 2d Circuit, said on Tuesday that “there is no basis” for such criticisms, describing Sotomayor as a collegial and tireless judge who is “a really wonderful person.” Katzmann added, “She will be a distinguished Supreme Court justice. Even when she disagrees, she does so very respectfully and constructively. She wants to get it right.”
Lauren Goldman, a New York partner at Mayer Brown who has argued before Sotomayor, said on Tuesday, “She is an even-tempered, collegial person who deals with lawyers before her in an even-handed and respectful way.”
And Pepperdine University School of Law professor Douglas Kmiec, a conservative who endorsed Obama in the 2008 election, said, “I think she is going to have impact by virtue of the experience she brings to the bench.”
Sotomayor has been on Obama’s short list since before he became president, but last week it appeared her chances were slipping, with 7th Circuit Judge Diane Wood seeming to pull ahead. But Sotomayor apparently hit it off with Obama when they met in recent days, and Obama’s desire for a nominee with “a common touch” prevailed. Sotomayor grew up in a housing project in the South Bronx, and overcame adversity to graduate at the top of her class at Princeton University and to serve on the law review at Yale Law School.
Hofstra University School of Law professor Eric Freedman, a Yale Law School classmate of Sotomayor’s, said “her judicial record and personal presentation will serve her well” on the high court. “She’s not going to show up with a view toward changing or fixing or reforming the Supreme Court.”
Sotomayor’s nomination has special meaning for Hispanic groups, especially lawyers who have seen potential Hispanic nominees to the high court passed over for years.
“She will bring to the table experiences and perspectives and wisdom that has never been there before,” said Carlos Ortiz of the Hispanic National Bar Association, who until Tuesday waged a frustrating 20-year campaign for a Hispanic Supreme Court justice. “I was beginning to think it would not happen in my lifetime. Today is the greatest day in American history.”
Kevin Johnson, dean of University of California, Davis School of Law, who has written about Hispanics and the Supreme Court, said, “Her unique perspective — with a racial, class and gender background different from any other Justice ever on the Supreme Court — will likely affect the Court’s deliberations and the other justices’ views of the cases before the Court. It is difficult to believe, for example, that…[her] views on immigration and criminal justice will not have an influence on the Court.”
As unique as Sotomayor is, though, she has common bonds with several justices that should help her fit in with the Court, which prizes collegiality. Like Souter, the justice she would replace, Sotomayor has been a trial judge. Like Samuel Alito Jr., she has been a prosecutor. Like Clarence Thomas, she grew up in poverty and mostly without a father. Like John Roberts Jr., she was a litigator in private practice. And like Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she grew up in New York City.
As a trial judge, Sotomayor gained moderate fame as the “savior of baseball,” issuing an order in 1995 that effectively ended the longest work stoppage in baseball history.
On the 2d Circuit for the past 11 years, she has issued few well-known rulings, but several could cause questions at her confirmation hearing.
Last year she joined a panel that upheld New Haven, Conn.’s decision to withdraw a promotion exam for city firefighters because not enough minorities passed it. White firefighters (and one Hispanic) claimed they were discriminated against on the basis of race because they were not promoted. The firefighters’ appeal is now before the Supreme Court.
In January, another decision she joined found that the Second Amendment right to bear arms did not apply to the states — a view that is likely to generate opposition from advocates of gun rights.
Obama on Tuesday expressed the hope that confirmation hearings for Sotomayor would take place in July, with a Senate vote before its August recess, so she can be seated in September before the Court convenes for the fall term on the first Monday in October. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the ranking minority party member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, promised a “fair hearing,” but said he would insist that all senators be given adequate time to study her record and obtain answers to their questions about her.
“We must remember that a Supreme Court justice sits for a lifetime appointment, and the Senate hearing is the only opportunity for the American people to engage in the nomination process,” said Sessions.
Click here for a video of Tony Mauro sharing insight on the Sotomayor pick at Blog of Legal Times.
Tony Mauro can be contacted at email@example.com. Chief Washington Correspondent Marcia Coyle contributed to this report.
June 25, 1954, the Bronx, N.Y.
Princeton University, 1976, summa cum laude
Yale Law School, 1979
Assistant district attorney for New York County, 1979-1984
Associate, Partner, New York’s Pavia & Harcourt, 1984-1992
Judge, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, 1992-1998
Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for 2d Circuit, 1998-present
Roman Catholic (she would be the sixth Catholic on the Court if confirmed)
Notable district court and appellate court decisions:
Ricci v. DeStefano: Sotomayor was on a panel that upheld, in a per curiam decision, the dismissal of a case brought by white firefighters and an Hispanic firefighter from New Haven, Conn., who challenged the city’s decision not to certify the results of promotion exams administered in 2003 because of the disparate impact on minorities and the city’s fear of a Title VII lawsuit. The Ricci case is pending decision in the Supreme Court.
Archie v. Grand Central Partnership: Sotomayor ruled that two New York City business improvement districts, the Grand Central Partnership and the 34th Street Partnership, violated the minimum-wage laws by paying homeless people they hired only $1 to $1.50 an hour and denying them overtime.
Hayden v. Pataki: Sotomayor wrote a dissenting opinion in which she said Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act “by its unambiguous terms subjects felony disenfranchisement and all other voting qualifications to its coverage.”
U.S. v. Quattrone: Sotomayor concluded that the trial judge had erred by forbidding the release of jurors’ names to the press, names that had been read in open court during the trial of former investment broker Frank Quattrone.
Lin v. Gonzales: Sotomayor ordered renewed consideration of the asylum claims of Chinese women who experienced or were threatened with forced birth control.
Bartlett v. New York State Bd. of Law Examiners: Sotomayor, sitting by designation in federal district court, presided over the trial of a severely dyslexic woman who claimed she deserved extra time to take the state bar exam as an accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act. She wrote an opinion holding that the disability was a “profound” life impairment.
Brown v. Oneonta: Sotomayor dissented from a denial of rehearing en banc in an equal protection case. The court had affirmed the dismissal of a suit brought by black residents and college students who had challenged police actions in stopping black people throughout the town and examining their hands. The police were investigating an assault on an elderly woman by a black male who, while using a knife in the attack, cut his hand. She disagreed with the majority’s decision ruling that the police did not engage in a suspect racial classification subject to strict scrutiny.
U.S. v. Martinez: Sotomayor wrote opinion holding that judges may consider hearsay testimony at sentencing.
Dow Jones & Co. v. U.S. Dep’t of Justice: In a Freedom of Information Act case, Sotomayor ordered release of copies of a handwritten, torn-up note retrieved from Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster’s briefcase after his suicide.
Information compiled by Marcia Coyle.