08/09/2009 03:19 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sotomayor Puts Dent in Glass Ceiling

Sonia Sotomayor took the oath of office on Saturday. She became the first Hispanic and the third woman to serve on the U. S. Supreme Court. But will her presence make a difference?

Soyomayor grew up in Bronx housing project and was raised by her mother after the death of her father. She had the good fortune, and she is not afraid to admit to a helping hand through affirmative action, to attend two Ivy League universities and later served on the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. Her rise through the ranks as a federal judge has now taken her to the highest plateau.

Republicans criticized her for her votes on Second Amendment and property rights and on a racial discrimination case involving white firefighters in New Haven, Conn.

On Thursday the Senate voted 68 to 31 to confirm her nomination. The Democrats voted solidly to support her while only 9 Republicans joined them. Thirty-one Republicans voted against her. They may feel the wrath of the Hispanic voters in 2010.

There appears to be a fear among the Republicans that Sotomayor will vote her beliefs as a Latina, minority woman rather than as an impartial, Constitutional judge. Do the Catholic and conservative justices on the Supreme Court vote as strict Constitutional purists when it comes to abortion, or do they vote their personal, religious beliefs?

In the first 200 plus years of this country there was never a question brought up about affirmative action. After all, it worked in the favor of the white race for all of those 200 years in politics, unions, state government, schools, city government, and in hiring practices all across America.

African Americans and other minorities couldn't even join most unions because a part of the criteria included having a friend/sponsor or relative already in the union. This pretty much closed the door to African American membership in most unions.

Even the men and women that defended America in time of war were segregated. Hispanics and Native Americans were counted as Caucasians on the rolls of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard prior to and during World War II for some odd reason. Chinese Americans could serve in the regular military units, but the Japanese and African Americans had to serve in all-Japanese and all-Colored units.

It was only after so-called "liberal" justices made it to the U. S. Supreme Court that things began to change for the minority races. Of course, it took the leadership and persuasion of Harry S. Truman to integrate the armed forces and a Texan named Lyndon Baines Johnson to push for the civil rights and voting rights of minorities, especially African Americans. But behind those two leaders and innovators were African American, Hispanic, Native American and Asian American leaders and citizens fighting for justice every step of the way.

Perhaps it will be a cold day in hell before a genuine Native American ever reaches the rarified air of the U. S. Supreme Court. Heck, Indians have to fight tooth and nail to get appointed to serve on a city, county or state court, least of all to a federal court.

In South Dakota, where Native Americans make up more than 10 percent of the total state population, there has never been a Native American appointed to serve on a federal court. And it's not because there are no qualified Indian attorneys. There are plenty of damned good Indian lawyers in this state, but the glass ceiling that women have had to contend with for a couple of hundred years seems to be the same roof keeping Indians down.

Sonia Sotomayor has experienced the frustrations of climbing the ladder of success in lieu of the glass ceiling by virtue of being a woman, as have the other two women who have served on this highest of courts, but she has also experienced the discrimination that none of the other women experienced, and that is the discrimination of being a racial minority.

No doubt there will be cases coming down the pike that will severely test her personal beliefs and experiences, because until you have faced racial discrimination, you cannot know the devastating impact it has on your psyche.

There is an old saying that goes, "Freedom of the press belongs to those who own the press" and for too many years, the laws that were the foundation of justice in America were written and enforced by the majority, white politicians and justices of America. To a minority that is not just speculation, but it is a fact. In South Dakota, for example, there are two forms of justice; one for whites and one for Indians. Every Indian knows this to be a fact.

Appointing Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court was a longtime a-coming. I will not hold my breath waiting for the first Native American to join her club.

(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the publisher of Native Sun News. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association, the 1985 recipient of the H. L. Mencken Award, and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. Giago was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2008. He can be reached at

By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© 2009 Native Sun News