President Obama’s selection of federal appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor is a move toward ethnic and gender diversity on the Supreme Court, but sets the stage for a contentious confirmation fight with conservative Republicans, who moved quickly to label her as a liberal judicial activist.
Sotomayor, 54, brings a compelling a life story of rising from a childhood in a housing project in the Bronx to academic success at elite schools: Princeton and Yale Law School. But in her decade-plus on the federal appeals court in New York, she has also gained a reputation for liberal views and a sometimes prickly temperament.
The Democratic majority in the Senate seems sufficient to assure confirmation, but Republicans are expected to use Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings to question Sotomayor closely on her views and to help strengthen their standing with social conservatives by focusing on such issues as abortion and gay rights. Barring any unexpected obstacles, however, Sotomayor seems likely to win confirmation in ample time to take her place on the bench when the court returns from its summer recess on the traditional first Monday in October.
In the White House ceremony announcing the nomination on May 26, Obama stressed what he called Sotomayor’s “compelling life story” as the daughter of Puerto Rican parents and her “depth of experience” as a “big-city prosecutor” in New York City and a “private corporate litigator” before serving on the federal bench first as a trial judge and then an appellate judge. He noted that if confirmed Sotomayor will replace Justice David H. Souter as the only member of the Supreme Court with experience as a trial judge.
Obama mentioned only one specific decision of Sotomayor’s: her ruling as a trial judge that ended the 1994 Major League Baseball strike. He noted that as a daughter of the Bronx, Sotomayor is a lifelong Yankees fan and said he hoped that would not hurt her standing with New England senators.
A White House fact sheet cited some other rulings, including a 1999 decision, United States v. Santa, allowing the use of evidence seized from a child pornography defendant on the basis of what proved to be an invalid arrest warrant. The fact sheet noted that the Supreme Court adopted that position in a recent decision, Herring v. United States. The fact-sheet also pointed to other rulings likely to please judicial conservatives. One allowed asylum claims by Chinese women who said they were forced to practice birth control (Lin v. Gonzales)>. In another case, Sotomayor argued in dissent that the federal government should not be able to dictate to religious organizations the selection of their spiritual leaders (Hankins v. Light).
In accepting the nomination, Sotomayor similarly stressed her experience, saying that her varied positions had helped her “appreciate the variety of perspectives” and the “concerns of all litigants” in cases before her. She said she was “deeply moved” by the selection and described herself as “an ordinary person who has been blessed with extraordinary opportunities.”