Getting to Know Judge Sonia Sotomayor
Posted with permission from PolicyinPractice.org and the law firm of Carpenter, Lipps & Leland LLP
Growing up in the Bronxdale Housing Project, Sonia Sotomayor’s mother scraped together what money she could and bought her daughter an encyclopedia set, books that would help propel Sotomayor to a scholarship to Princeton University, from which she would graduate summa cum laude. Three years later, she served as editor of the Yale Law Review, one of the most prestigious law journals in the world. Following graduation, she began a career in public service, making a brief stop in private practice along the way.
Her life, paralleling the experiences of President Obama himself, is one of the many reasons Obama cited for having nominated her to replace David Souter on the Court.
Raised by a widowed mother who worked two jobs and six-day weeks to send her children to parochial schools, Sotomayor began her professional career as an Assistant DA to the legendary Robert Morgenthau in New York. She then practiced at Pavia & Harcourt from 1984-1992, specializing in intellectual property litigation. In 1992, President George Bush nominated her to the U.S. District Court. At 40 years old, she became the youngest judge on the Court, and the first judge of Puerto Rican descent.
Sotomayor has served as a board member of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Eduction Fund, and worked as an adjunct professor at New York University School of Law from 1998-2007. She has also been a lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School since 1999.
Politically, the move makes a great deal of sense for Obama. Sotomayor can be said to be a bipartisan choice because she was initially nominated by a Republican. Furthermore, she is exceedingly accomplished in the classroom, and would bring more federal judicial experience to the Supreme Court than any justice in 100 years. Electorally, Obama continues to shore up support among women; he continues to galvanize support among Hispanics; and he forces Republicans to risk alienating both groups, neither of which has been as supportive of the GOP in recent elections–particularly out West, where Democrats have made notable inroads in the past 4 years.
Republican Senators going on the offensive against Sotomayor, armed with her experience, academic resume and compelling personal story, may not play well with moderate voters across the country–particularly in swing states where the Hispanic population is burgeoning.
Republicans helped confirm Sotomayor in ’98 after delay
Initially chosen for the Court of Appeals in the summer of 1997, a handful of Republicans in the Senate delayed her nomination because they did not want Clinton to be able to eventually appoint her to the Supreme Court.
”Basically, we think that putting her on the appeals court puts her in the batter’s box to be nominated to the Supreme Court,” one senior Republican staff aide told the New York Times in 1997. ”If Clinton nominated her it would put several of our senators in a real difficult position.”
The wrangling was bitter, as Democrat Patrick Leahy indicated.
”Their reasons are stupid at best and cowardly at worst. What they are saying is that they have a brilliant judge who also happens to be a woman and Hispanic, and they haven’t the guts to stand up and argue publicly against her on the floor. They just want to hide in their cloakrooms and do her in quietly.”
GOP plan to skewer Sotomayor
Having long ago decided to galvanize their base regardless of whom Obama chose as his first Supreme Court nominee, the GOP is already showing its hand in its opposition to Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination. Knowing full well that Sotomayor is nearly certain to be confirmed, Republicans are setting out to brand her as a radical liberal unqualified for the job.
Calling her the next Harriet Miers, Republicans are citing a controversial essay penned by Jeffrey Rosen in The New Republic that cited anonymous sources questioning Sotomayor’s intellect. That will be countered by the fact that she graduated with honors from Princeton and Yale Law, but the meme will persist regardless.
In other words, Republicans will call her an affirmative action choice. Or as one executive of the right-leaning Committee for Justice said earlier today:
“I would point you to the Harriet Miers nomination under the second President Bush. She was also many people felt and intellectual lightweight, picked because she was a woman, people felt. And even though Republicans controlled the senate, she ultimately had to withdraw. And that could happen here. This is someone who clearly was picked because she’s a woman and Hispanic, not because she was the best qualified. I could certainly see red and purple state Democrats gawking at it and she may very well have to withdraw her nomination.”
Republicans will also attack Sotomayor for two comments, in particular, that she has made. One was with regards to the judicial role. In an appearance at Duke Law School, Sotomayor said that “The court of appeals is where policy is made.” Of course, the quote is taken out of context. The entire remark was as follows:
The saw is that if you’re going into academia, you’re going to teach, or as Judge Lucero just said, public interest law, all of the legal defense funds out there, they’re looking for people with court of appeals experience, because it is – court of appeals is where policy is made. And I know – and I know this is on tape and I should never say that because we don’t make law, I know. OK, I know. I’m not promoting it, and I’m not advocating it, I’m – you know. OK. Having said that, the court of appeals is where, before the Supreme Court makes the final decision, the law is percolating – its interpretation, its application. And Judge Lucero is right. I often explain to people, when you’re on the district court, you’re looking to do justice in the individual case.
So you are looking much more to the facts of the case than you are to the application of the law because the application of the law is non-precedential, so the facts control. On the court of appeals, you are looking to how the law is developing, so that it will then be applied to a broad class of cases. And so you’re always thinking about the ramifications of this ruling on the next step in the development of the law.
You can make a choice and say, “I don’t care about the next step,” and sometimes we do. Or sometimes we say, “We’ll worry about that when we get to it” – look at what the Supreme Court just did. But the point is that that’s the differences – the practical differences in the two experiences are the district court is controlled chaos and not so controlled most of the time.
She is also taking hits for a comment she made in 2002: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”