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Sotomayor on the Supreme Court: a Nomination with Promise

Jun 01, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

Speculation about who would be nominated to replace Supreme Court Justice Souter came to an end last Tuesday with the announcement of Sonia Sotomayor as President Obama's pick to fill the vacancy. For many of us in the women's research and advocacy community, it's a promising choice that hopefully will move the Court away from its extreme rightward shift. A New York federal appeals justice born to Puerto Rican parents and raised in a Bronx housing project, Ms. Sotomayor has the legal acumen, and the life experience, that would make her an outstanding addition to the nation's highest court.

Not only experienced, well-educated and accomplished, Judge Sotomayor, like the President who nominated her, holds special significance for people from historically under-represented groups, particularly Latina women and girls. In a world where most Latinas are far less likely to go on to college than any other group of women , only 2.9 % of Latina women hold advanced graduate degrees, 10% of all Latina women are unemployed, and the number of Hispanic women that are federal court judges can be counted on one hand, Sotomayor has risen above those odds to become the first ever Hispanic woman to be nominated to the Supreme Court. Like President Obama, Sotomayor's rise from modest beginnings makes for a compelling narrative of personal triumph - overcoming incredible odds to become a role model for others. For the Latino Community, her appointment gives a glimmer of hope that the often silenced voice of the Latina minority has a better chance of being heard in the public arena.

The confirmation process, in all likelihood, will be fraught with the usual partisan mud-slinging. Opponents have already begun aggressively labeling her an activist judge who would legislate from the bench. Her involvement with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund has sent shivers of fear through those who have a stake in maintaining the status quo. Sotomayor said that "a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." Her adversaries, including Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, have even gone so far as to accuse her of reverse racism.

But her unique background, rather than a threat or a handicap, should be viewed instead as an advantage that will enhance the level of decision-making on the Court. With her direct experience of poverty, disparity and prejudice, Sotomayor would contribute an extra layer of insight and deepen the perspectives on which the Court's rulings and opinions are based.

"Senate Republicans will treat Judge Sotomayor fairly," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement. "But 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." There is an underlying assumption (based on what evidence exactly?) that Judge Sotomayor will somehow be more emotional and less objective than her more conservative male colleagues on the bench. This not only rings stereotypical (hysterical, emotion-driven female), but assumes an illusory male objectivity that the other justices cannot possess. Do not Justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas and their colleagues bring their life experiences to bear when interpreting the law?

Judge Sotomayor's nomination is a step in the right direction, but the work is not finished yet. While women earned 47.7% of law degrees in 2007, they represent only 17% of Congress, only 17 percent of the partners at major law firms nationwide and one-quarter of state judges. We can and must do better.

And there is still the question of where Ms. Sotomayer stands on the issue of women's reproductive rights. We will be very interested to follow in the ensuing weeks and months, any indication of what her thinking is on privacy, Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to choose.

As Sotomayor stated herself, "our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions." To bring a woman's perspective into the mix is the first step in ensuring more balanced and representative thinking to key decisions that will affect Americans as a whole. Let's hope Judge Sotomayor lives up to her promise: "I strive never to forget the real-world consequences of my decisions on individuals, businesses and government." If she can accomplish that goal, then the whole country stands to benefit.