There are three reasons why I think Sonia Sotomayor is a good choice to be the next Justice on the United States Supreme Court. First, her nomination is historic. If confirmed, Justice Sotomayor will be the first Latina, the first woman of color, and only the third woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court (not to mention the first Supreme Court Justice to grow up in a public housing project!). Second, Sotomayor is an incredibly accomplished, brilliant woman who is highly qualified for the job. Third, Judge Sotomayor has the right temperament and philosophy for the Supreme Court today.
It is difficult to overstate the historic significance of President Obama’s choice of a Latina woman as his first nomination to the Supreme Court. To illustrate my point, consider this: When I was a student at Yale Law School in the late 1980s, the law students held a one day strike for diversity, calling for diversity in the faculty, student body and law school curriculum. To protest the fact that at that time Yale had never had a woman of color on the faculty, a classmate of mine created paper effigies of all the faculty members and hung them from the ceiling of the law school. Hanging from the ceiling was a long row of white men, several white women, and several men of color. No women of color. Now imagine if my classmate had done the same with the United States Supreme Court throughout our history. Out of 115 paper effigies (based on my unofficial count), 111 of them would be white men, two would Black men, and two white women. Again, no women of color.
The fact that Justice Sotomayor would be the first Latina and the first woman of color ever to serve on the United States Supreme Court, and a person who comes from a low income background, matters because the Supreme Court makes decisions that affect all of our lives, including the 52% of us who are women and the 26% of us who are non-white. It matters because life experience, including our gender, race and economic backgrounds, affects how all of us view the world, and how judges view the law. This does not mean that Justice Sotomayor would always rule in favor of women, people of color (regardless of their gender), and poor people, who appear before the Court. Her record on the lower federal courts makes this abundantly clear. What it does mean is that Justice Sotomayor would bring a life experience to the Court that would enrich the Court’s consideration of legal issues and make the Court more connected to the impact of its decisions on all of us.
Second, Justice Sotomayor’s qualifications are outstanding. She graduated at the top of her class from Princeton, one of the nation’s top universities and an incredibly competetive institution. She excelled as well at Yale Law School, where she served on the Law Review. Sotomayor has extensive experience as a prosecutor and as a private attorney, and 17 years as a federal judge. I am incredulous that anyone could argue that Sotomayor lacks the credentials to be a Supreme Court justice. These critiques simply have no foundation. Sotomayor’s record speaks for itself.
Finally, I believe that Sotomayor has the right temperament for the Court at this time. This is where I differ from those liberals who have argued that they would prefer someone with a stronger ideological focus. By all accounts, Sotomayor is a liberal to moderate person who enjoys engaging legal arguments and listens to all sides before making decisions. However, she is no shrinking violet and is not likely to be intimidated by the more conservative, more senior members of the Court. (After all, the woman grew up in a Bronx housing project!!!)
Sotomayor’s record is also so far from the “liberal activist” label that conservative critics are trying to link to her that the label simply won’t stick. It’s about time that we recognized that (as I have argued in previous columns) the only activism that has occurred in the United States Supreme Court in the past twenty or so years has been conservative retrenchment against progressive political policies. If confirmed, Sotomayor will bring strong experience, diversity, and a balanced approach to the law that belies that conservative activism. As a person with progressive politics who is sick and tired of the activism of the conservative Rehnquist and Roberts Courts, I say, bring Sotomayor on!