Obama Picks Hispanic Woman For Supreme Court

President Obama named Sonia Sotomayor as his choice to fill the Supreme Court seat of retiring David Souter. She has been a judge since 1992 and an appellate judge since 1998. But critics may find their best ammunition against her in speeches she has made, not in her legal opinions.

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The president who nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court is placing heavy emphasis on her life story. The Republicans who will question her want time to focus on her judicial record. We'll get an early look at both subjects in this part of the program.

GREENE: Sonia Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic justice. And in a moment, we'll visit the housing project where she grew up in New York. We begin though with NPR's Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG: For literally years, Sonia Sotomayor has been a frontrunner for a Supreme Court vacancy if one should occur in a Democratic administration. Indeed, she was on Barack Obama's shortlist before the inauguration. And yesterday, the president made it official.

President BARACK OBAMA: What Sonia will bring to the court then is 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.

TOTENBERG: Sonia Sotomayor, born to Puerto Rican parents, was raised in the housing projects of the South Bronx. Adversity struck at young age. She was diagnosed with diabetes. And when she was nine, her father died. With her mother working two jobs, Sonia went to Catholic schools then Princeton where she graduated summa cum laude, then onto Yale where she served as an editor on the prestigious Law Journal.

In her first job out of law school, she was a prosecutor for five years in the Manhattan DA's office. From there, she went to a fancy private firm litigating on behalf of international corporations. When she was 38, the first President Bush named her to the federal trial court at the recommendation of Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. She won unanimous Senate conformation and early on became known as the judge who saved baseball after she ruled against the baseball owners, a decision that ultimately led to the end of the baseball strike.

In 1997, President Clinton named her to the appeals court. But this time, Republicans blocked her nomination for a year fearing she might be a contender for the Supreme Court. They were right. Yesterday at the White House, Sotomayor dressed in a simple black suit, chartreuse blouse and no jewelry was all-New York, all-loving daughter as she looked at her weeping mother in the front row and all-professional lawyer.

Judge SONIA SOTOMAYOR (Supreme Court Nominee): I firmly believe in the rule of law as the foundation for all of our basic rights. For as long as I can remember, I have been inspired by the achievement of our Founding Fathers. They set forth principles that have endured for more than two centuries.

TOTENBERG: The inspiring Sotomayor story and the growing number of Hispanic voters in the country may give Republicans pause about opposing the nomination. But for weeks, conservative groups have been gearing up to oppose any of the names widely mentioned as possible nominees. Yesterday, those groups immediately leaped into action. Here, for example, is Wendy Long, a former law clerk for Justice Clarence Thomas and now counsel for the Judicial Conformation Network.

Ms. WENDY LONG (Judicial Confirmation Network): I think she is pretty clearly a liberal judicial activist who sees her role as a judge as one where she can use her own political agenda and her feelings and values, and to bring those to bear upon judicial cases.

TOTENBERG: But judges who served with Sotomayor on the appeals court -Republican and Democratic appointees alike - disputed that characterization. Judge Roger Miner, a Reagan appointee, calls Sotomayor an excellent choice.

Judge ROGER MINER (2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals): I don't think I'd go as far as to classify her in one camp or another. I think she just deserves the classification of outstanding judge.

TOTENBERG: Former chief judge, Jon Newman, a Carter appointee, calls her a brilliant lawyer and a fair-minded pragmatist.

Judge JON NEWMAN (2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals): She is everything one would want in a first-rate judge.

TOTENBERG: And John Walker, appointed by the first President Bush, calls Sotomayor an independent thinker.

Judge JOHN WALKER (2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals): 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 on the right and left have actually read most of Sotomayor's legal opinions at this point. But Supreme Court advocate, Tom Goldstein, founder of the leading Supreme Court blog has.

Mr. TOM GOLDSTEIN (Founder, SCOTUSblog): It's very hard to see what in her decisions conservatives will grab hold of - hold up to Americans and say, look, you have here someone who is going to be out of control, is going to be an ideologue who is a liberal activist. For that, they kind of have to look at individual lines in her speeches and try and make something out of them.

TOTENBERG: And those lines are there. In the coming weeks, conservatives will try to demonstrate that those hints are evidence of judicial activism lurking in the shadows and waiting to be unleashed.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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Obama Chooses Sotomayor For Supreme Court

Sonia Sotomayor

Age: 54; Born June 25, 1954, in New York, N.Y.

  

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.

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