On May 26, 2009, President Obama announced Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals as his nominee to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter.[i]If confirmed, Sotomayor would be the first Latino ever to serve on the court and only the third female justice in the Supreme Court’s history. If confirmed, she will become the nation’s 111th justice and the sixth person on the current nine-member panel with a Roman Catholic background.[ii]
Judge Sotomayor is a graduate of Princeton University and Yale Law School and joined the federal district court in 1992 after being nominated by former President George H.W. Bush. She was nominated to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, in New York, by former President Bill Clinton in 1997 and confirmed in 1998.
While abortion-rights advocates offered their initial support for Sotomayor, they quickly indicated that they were eager to learn more about her views on abortion rights, particularly as she has a limited judicial record on the issue. In her 11 years on the court, she has never directly ruled on whether the Constitution protects a woman’s right to an abortion, and, while she has written opinions that touched tangentially on abortion, she has, on occasion, reached outcomes that were favorable to abortion opponents.[iii] Just after her nomination, when asked if the Obama had questioned Sotomayor about her views on abortion rights before the nomination, White House Spokesperson Robert Gibbs said that the president “did not ask that specifically.”[iv] This left many abortion-rights organizations uneasy and caused them to urge supporters to press senators to demand that Judge Sotomayor reveal her views on privacy rights before any confirmation vote. Gibbs has since assured abortion-rights groups that Sotomayor shares President Obama’s views on constitutional protection for a right to privacy and a woman’s right to abortion.[v]
Others have criticized Sotomayor, who has said “our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions,” for comments she has made about her decision making process. During her nomination by President Obama, Judge Sotomayor said, “This wealth of experiences, personal and professional, have helped me appreciate the variety of perspectives that present themselves in every case that I hear.” She went on to say, “I strive never to forget the real-world consequences of my decisions on individuals, businesses and government.”[vi] Perhaps the most controversial of her statements, however, came in 2001 lecture in which she said, 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.”[vii]
The weight that Sotomayor gives to life experience drew intense criticism from conservative groups who disagree with the idea of a judge relying on personal background or feelings in making judicial rulings and are concerned that she will have empathy for particular classes of litigants, such as women or people of color. Officials from the administration said they are confident that the combination of “Sotomayor’s personal narrative, sterling academic credentials and long experience as a prosecutor, private attorney, trial judge and appeals court jurist would trump any criticism.”[viii]
Conservative groups and pundits have also seized on another comment from the judge, this one made during a 2005 conference where she quipped that a “court of appeals is where policy is made.” She seemed to immediately understand the controversial nature of this statement, because she added, “I know this is on tape and I should never say that, because we don’t make law.” The White House explained that Sotomayor meant the appeals courts play a greater role in interpreting laws than do district courts, but Republicans and conservative activists point to the comment as yet another sign that she would try to impose her personal values in judicial decisions.[ix] Senate Democrats have announced that confirmation hearings for Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court are set to begin on July 13. President Obama is hoping to have Sotomayor confirmed before the Senate’s five-week recess that begins August 7.
For more information about Judge Sotomayor, see backgrounders from the Center for Reproductive Rights and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
[i] Jeff Zelney, “Obama Chooses Sotomayor for Supreme Court Nominee,”New York Times, The Caucus, 26 May 2009, accessed 15 June 2009, <http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/26/obama-makes-decision-on-supreme-court-nominee/?pagemode=print>.
[ii] Peter Baker and Jeff Zelney, “Obama Hails Judge as ‘Inspiring,’” New York Times, 26 May 2009, accessed 15 June 2009, <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/27/us/politics/27court.html?_r=2&hp>.
[iv] Charlie Savage, “On Sotomayor, Some Abortion Rights Backers Are Uneasy,” New York Times,27 May 2009,accessed 15 June 2009, <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/28/us/politics/28abortion.html?_r=1&hp>.
[v] Robert Barnes and Michael D. Schear, “Abortion Rights Backers Get Reassurances on Nominee,” Washington Post, 29 May 2009,accessed 15 June 2009, <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/28/AR2009052803937_2.html?hpid=topnews&sid=ST2009052803991>.
[vi] Robert Barnes and Michael A. Fletcher, “Riskiest Choice on Obama’s List Embodies His Criteria,” Washington Post, 27 May 2009, accessed 15 June 2009, <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/26/AR2009052600889.html?hpid=topnews>.
[ix] Peter Baker and Jeff Zelney, “Obama Hails Judge as ‘Inspiring.’”