President Obama has nominated federal appeals judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. If confirmed, Sotomayor, who has been a judge for 17 years, will be the court's first Hispanic justice.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
An inspiring woman - that's how President Obama described his choice for the Supreme Court this morning. If Judge Sonia Sotomayor is confirmed, she will be the third woman and the first Hispanic justice ever.
President BARACK OBAMA: When Sonia Sotomayor ascends those marble steps to assume her seat on the highest court of the land, America will have taken another important step towards realizing the ideal that is etched above its entrance: Equal justice under the law.
NORRIS: We have several stories on the president's court pick in this part of the program. We'll get started with NPR's legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG: Judge Sotomayor beamed broadly as President Obama summed up her very legal experience as a prosecutor, a private commercial litigator, then as a federal trial judge, and for the last 11 years as an appeals court judge. Quoting Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Mr. Obama said the life of the law is not just logic but experience, and Sotomayor's personal story is one of extraordinary experience.
Pres. OBAMA: When 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, no dream is beyond reach in the United States of America.
TOTENBERG: Born in New York 54 years ago to Puerto Rican parents, Sotomayor soon faced adversity. Her father, a tool and dye worker, died when she was 9, leaving her mother, a nurse, to work two jobs to support Sonia and her brother. At about the same time, she was diagnosed with diabetes. Raised in the housing projects of the South Bronx, she attended Catholic schools and won a scholarship to Princeton. She was so intimidated in her first year that she never raised her hand to speak in class, but she soon found her sea legs and graduated summa cum laude.
She went on to Yale Law School, where she became an editor of the law review. After Yale, she served for five years as an assistant D.A., followed by seven years in private practice. And then at age 38, she was nominated by the first President Bush to the federal trial bench. Actually, it was a Democrat, then-Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was her angel. And her nomination went forward under an agreement of alternating nominations between Moynihan and Republican Senator Alfonse D'Amato. Today, President Obama alluded to one of her most famous cases as a trial judge.
Pres. OBAMA: One case in particular involved a matter of enormous concern to many Americans, including me: the baseball strike of 1994-95.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Pres. OBAMA: In a decision that reportedly took her just 15 minutes to announce - a swiftness much appreciated by baseball fans everywhere…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Pres. OBAMA: …she issued an injunction that helped end the strike. Some say that Judge Sotomayor saved baseball.
(Soundbite of applause)
TOTENBERG: In 1997, she was appointed to the federal appeals court by President Clinton. Republicans held up her nomination for a year because they feared she was Supreme Court material. They were right. At the White House this morning, just as Sotomayor's stepped to the microphone, Vice President Biden whispered in her ear.
Judge SONIA SOTOMAYOR (Supreme Court Nominee): I was just counseled not to be nervous.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Judge SOTOMAYOR: That's almost impossible.
TOTENBERG: Sotomayor thanked her family, especially her mother, weeping in the front row. And then she recalled that when she was nominated to the court of appeals 12 years ago, she got a private tour of the White House.
Judge SOTOMAYOR: Never in my wildest childhood imaginings, did I ever envision that moment. Let alone, did I ever dream that I would live this moment.
TOTENBERG: Hispanic groups were, needless to say, thrilled. Conservative groups for weeks have branded Sotomayor and other potential nominees as radicals. Today, they used slightly different language. Here, for instance, is Gary Bauer of American Values.
Mr. GARY BAUER (President, American Values): This should not turn into some sort of celebration for diversity, however nice of a goal that is. It ought to be an educational process, so the American people can tell ahead of time whether the president they elected is putting somebody on the court that shares their values.
TOTENBERG: As for the judges who served with Sotomayor on the federal appeals court in New York, both Democratic and Republican appointees praised her hard work, intelligence and independence. Here's former Chief Judge Jon Newman, appointed by President Carter.
Judge JON NEWMAN (Second Circuit Court): She is everything one would want in a first-rate judge.
TOTENBERG: And here is Judge John Walker, appointed by the first President Bush.
Judge JOHN WALKER (Appeals Court Judge): While her views are liberal, I don't consider her to be an ideological judge or an activist judge pushing a political agenda.
TOTENBERG: Few people outside of her fellow judges and White House screeners have actually read most of Judge Sotomayor's opinions at this point. One person who has is Supreme Court advocate Tom Goldstein, founder of the leading Supreme Court blog. And he says flashpoint opinions are few and far between in Sotomayor's record.
Mr. TOM GOLDSTEIN (Blogger of U.S. Supreme Court): I kind of think that the Republicans are in a bit of a corner here. They don't have something that they can really use to illustrate - to show that she's a danger to the Constitution, that she's a radical, that she's a real liberal ideologue. And so attacks on her come across as relatively personal.
TOTENBERG: Republican senators today were noncommittal, saying that they intend to scour Sotomayor's record carefully. Goldstein says that ironically, it wasn't only the right that was disappointed by Sotomayor's appointment.
Mr. GOLDSTEIN: The left didn't get somebody who's a visionary, who wants to fight the grandest battles of the Constitution. There's just nothing in her experience, in her past decisions that says she's that kind of justice.
TOTENBERG: So what happens next? The White House, by making this Sotomayor appointment relatively quickly, is aiming for mid-July confirmation hearings, with a vote by the time the Senate takes its summer recess in August. That would not be out of line with the time spent on previous nominations. But nothing is predictable when it comes to Supreme Court confirmations.
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Experience: Nominated by President Clinton in 1997 as U.S. Court of Appeals judge for the 2nd Circuit, 1998-present; U.S. District Court judge for the Southern District of New York, 1992-98; private practice, New York City, 1984-92; assistant district attorney, Manhattan, 1979-84
Education: B.A., Princeton University, 1976; J.D., Yale Law School, 1979.
Quote (from 1997 nomination hearing): "I don't believe we should bend the Constitution under any circumstance. It says what it says. We should do honor to it."
'Where Policy Is Made'
Critics point to this comment by Judge Sonia Sotomayor at a 2005 forum at Duke University School of Law, where she talked about why public interest groups like to hire lawyers who have been appeals court clerks:
President Obama on Tuesday nominated U.S. Circuit Judge Sonia Sotomayor to serve on the Supreme Court, tapping the daughter of Puerto Rican parents to succeed retiring Justice David Souter and become the first Hispanic to serve on the high court.
Calling Sotomayor "an inspiring woman," Obama said that he looked not only at intellect and the ability to be impartial, but at life experience and the ability to relate to ordinary Americans in choosing Sotomayor as his nominee.
At a White House news conference, Sotomayor thanked the president for "the most humbling honor" of her life. "My heart today is bursting with gratitude," she said.
If confirmed by the Senate, the 54-year-old judge will bring nearly 17 years of experience on the federal bench and a history of bipartisan appeal to the high court. She was first appointed to federal bench in the Southern District of New York in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush and was named to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals by President Bill Clinton in 1998.
Hispanic Groups Laud Choice
Obama said Sotomayor has more experience as a judge than any of the justices had when they were nominated for their positions on the high court.
Hispanic groups lauded the president's choice. "The Supreme Court should reflect the diverse population of the United States to ensure that our nation's highest court understands the unique circumstances of all Americans," said Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
If confirmed, Sotomayor will join Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the second woman on the current court and the third in history. Sotomayor, like the retiring Souter, is expected to vote with the court liberals.
Republicans are not expected to put up much of a fight against the nomination. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine said Republicans would have a difficult time taking on a judge that was first appointed to the federal bench by Republican.
"She's been pretty carefully vetted and analyzed already, so I would find it unusual if they were to decide to try to take her on," Kane said.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said the upcoming court vacancy provides an opportunity to discuss the role the Supreme Court has in the daily lives of Americans.
"Republicans look forward to learning more about federal appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor's thoughts on the importance of the Supreme Court's fidelity to the Constitution and the rule of law," Steele was quoted saying on the RNC Web site.
Republicans Want Time For Debate
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said his colleagues will treat Sotomayor fairly but want time to debate her qualifications.
"We will thoroughly examine her record to ensure she understands that the role of a jurist in our democracy is to apply the law even-handedly, despite their own feelings or personal or political preferences," McConnell said in a statement posted on his Web site.
Sotomayor predicted senators would come to see her as an ordinary person who has had some extraordinary opportunities.
"I hope that as the Senate and American people learn more about me, they will see that I am an ordinary person who has been blessed with extraordinary opportunities and experiences," Sotomayor said.
During the East Room announcement, the president cited Sotomayor's educational accomplishments at Princeton University — where she graduated summa cum laude in 1976 — and Yale University Law School. He also said her stint trying criminal cases as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan after her graduation from Yale Law School, corporate law experience and time as a trial judge gave her an edge because she has seen the judicial system from many perspectives.
One of her most prominent rulings came in 1995, when she sided with Major League Baseball players in a labor strike that had led to the cancellation of that season's World Series.
"Over a distinguished career that spans three decades, Judge Sotomayor has worked at almost every level of our judicial system, providing her with a depth of experience and a breadth of perspective that will be invaluable as a Supreme Court justice," Obama said.
The president also said he was moved by her inspirational personal story.
Sotomayor was raised in a housing project in New York's South Bronx by Puerto Rican parents who came to the United States during World War II. Her father was a factory worker who had a third-grade education and spoke no English. He died when she was 9, a year after she was diagnosed with Type 1, or juvenile, diabetes.
Sotomayor said she was strongly influenced by her mother, who served in the Women's Army Corps and often worked two jobs to support Sotomayor and her brother, Juan.
"I have often said that I am all I am because of her, and I am only half the woman she is," Sotomayor said, recognizing her mother and other family members seated in the audience as the president announced her nomination.
An Upward Career Path
Obama said the couple believed in the American dream and the power of education. Sotomayor attended Catholic school and went on to attend Princeton and Yale.
From 1984 until her appointment to the bench, Sotomayor practiced international business law at the New York-based firm of Pavia & Harcourt LLP. There, she focused on intellectual property issues and litigation and arbitration of commercial and commodity export trading cases, according to her appeals court biography.
Later, Sotomayor became a member of the 2nd Circuit Task Force on Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts, which was established in 1993 to examine the effect of bias on court employees and litigants. She has also remained active in legal education, serving as an adjunct professor at New York University School of Law from 1998-2007 and as a lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School since 1999.
She has also served on the Board of Directors of the State of New York Mortgage Agency, the New York City Campaign Finance Board, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Maternity Center Association.