"We are reaching a certain level politically and socially, and this is being recognized by the administration," said Gabriela Lemus of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement.
Reaching for history, President Barack Obama on Tuesday chose federal appeals judge Sonia Sotomayor to be the first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court, championing her as a compassionate, seasoned jurist whose against-the-odds life journey affirms the American dream.
Republicans who will decide whether to make a fight of her confirmation said they want thorough hearings.
However, defeating Sotomayor would be difficult in the heavily Democratic Senate, and even a major effort to block her confirmation could be risky for a party still reeling from last year’s elections. Hispanics are the fastest-growing part of the population and increasingly active politically.
Obama, eager to begin putting his imprint on the court, beamed as he introduced Sotomayor as a judge who displays both an impressive mind and heart, a jurist who takes on cases with “an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live.” He raved about her credentials, saying she would start on the job with more experience on the bench than any of the current nine justices had when they began.
The White House tableau itself was history: A black president and his white vice president, Joe Biden, striding onto a stage in the ornate East Room with the nominee who grew up in a New York housing project where her parents had moved from Puerto Rico.
At 54, Sotomayor (pronounced soh-toh-my-YOR’), would join Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the second woman on the court and just the third in its history. She would replace liberal Justice David Souter, thereby maintaining the court’s ideological divide. A number of important cases have been divided by 5-4 majorities, with conservative- and liberal-leaning justices split 4-4 and Justice Anthony Kennedy providing the decisive vote.
Senate Republicans pledged to give her a fair hearing but cautioned they would question her rigorously and not be rushed. The president, whose approval ratings trump those of Congress, challenged the Senate to move swiftly and confirm her before Congress’ August break. The Supreme Court begins its new term in October.
Democrats hold 59 votes in the Senate, more than enough to confirm Sotomayor but not quite enough to stop a vote-blocking filibuster if Republicans should attempt one.
The top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said: “We will thoroughly examine her record to ensure she understands that the role of a jurist in our democracy is to apply the law evenhandedly, despite their own feelings or personal or political preferences.”
In one of her most notable decisions as an appellate judge, she sided last year with the city of New Haven, Conn., in a discrimination case brought by white firefighters. The city threw out results of a promotion exam because too few minorities scored high enough. Coincidentally, that case is now before the Supreme Court.
Her ruling had already drawn criticism from conservatives and is likely to play a role in her confirmation hearing.
Still, seven of the Senate’s current Republicans voted to confirm her for the appeals court in 1998, and she was first nominated to be a federal judge by Republican President George H.W. Bush.
Born in the South Bronx, Sotomayor lost her father at a young age and watched her mother work two jobs to provide for her and her brother. Her path has soared ever since: Princeton University and Yale Law School, then positions as a commercial litigator, federal district judge and appellate judge.
“What you’ve shown in your life is that it doesn’t matter where you come from, what you look like or what challenges life throws your way,” Obama said Sotomayor stood at his side at a packed White House event. “No dream is beyond reach in the United States of America.”
Said the nominee: “I am an ordinary person who has been blessed with extraordinary opportunities and experiences.”
Obama’s selection was not just about the next justice but also the new president.
He had not met Sotomayor until he interviewed her last Thursday at the White House. She was the only one of the four finalists he did not know. But in addition to her other qualifications, she offered a politically attractive background and appealing narrative.
Justices on the nine-member court receive lifetime appointments and can have a profound influence on daily life. Sotomayor would be a new voice on the cases that often reflect divisions in the broader society, including national security, abortion, gay rights and privacy.
Even before she was nominated, conservative activists were describing her as a judicial activist who would put feelings above the Constitution.
Sotomayor seemed to take the matter head on. She said the rule of law is the foundation of all basic rights and the principles set forth by the Founding Fathers endure. “Those principles,” she said at the White House, “are as meaningful and relevant in each generation as the generation before.”
The nomination of the woman who would be the first Hispanic justice comes with the United States on a population path that will see minorities become the majority, and Hispanic leaders saw Tuesday’s nomination as significant.
“We are reaching a certain level politically and socially, and this is being recognized by the administration,” said Gabriela Lemus of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement.
As a kid in New York’s South Bronx, Sotomayor had to deal with diabetes but dreamed of a career in law, inspired by reading Nancy Drew books and watching “Perry Mason” on TV.
“Although I grew up in very modest and challenging circumstances, I consider my life to be immeasurably rich,” said Sotomayor, who smiled broadly as she introduced her mother, Celina, in the front row. The nominee is divorced with no children.
Yet it is her written and spoken opinions, not her compelling life story, that are likely to shape the tone of her confirmation consideration in the Senate.
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said he had talked with Obama and Sotomayor Tuesday and assured them she would be treated fairly. “I’d like it to be a hearing that people can be proud of,” he said.
In one of her most memorable rulings as federal district judge, in 1995, Sotomayor ruled with Major League Baseball players over owners in a labor strike that had led to the cancellation of the World Series. “Some say that Judge Sotomayor saved baseball,” Obama said.
She became a federal judge for the Southern District of New York in 1992, then an appeals judge in 1998 for the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers New York, Vermont and Connecticut.
Obama chose her over three other finalists: federal appellate judge Diane Wood, Solicitor General Elena Kagan and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Obama interviewed all of them, too, last week. He decided on Sotomayor at about 8 p.m. Monday and telephoned her with the good news.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama never questioned Sotomayor specifically about abortion, often a flash-point topic for court nominees.
Obama came to office at a time when several potential vacancies loomed on the high court. Justice John Paul Stevens is 89, and Ginsburg recently underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer.
Sotomayor has spoken about her pride in her ethnic background and has said that personal experiences “affect the facts that judges choose to see.”
“I simply do not know exactly what the difference will be in my judging,” she said in a speech in 2001. “But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage.”
(The Associated Press)
Associated Press writers David Espo, Darlene Superville, Ben Evans, Jesse J. Holland and Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this story.