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Sonia Sotomayor: a breath of fresh air

For everyone who’s lamented that Obama is turning out to be just like George W. Bush, I present you with Exhibit A for the defense: Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

Sotomayor is 54, from the Bronx, Puerto Rican, a summa cum laude graduate of Princeton and a Yale Law School grad, where she edited the Law Journal. She has also been an adjunct professor of law at New York University and a lecturer at Columbia University. She was the early target of attacks from the right, who called her a bully and implied that she would be an affirmative action choice—because Ivy League schools give out honors designations by gender and choose law review editors because of their skin tone all the time.

Aside from the fact that there’s nothing wrong with choosing, from many qualified jurists, one with a background not currently represented on the Court, Obama’s choice of the judge who had faced the earliest, most pointed racist and sexist critiques from the right and a horrible article in “even the liberal” New Republic is a welcome sign. It shows critics and supporters alike that he’s not afraid of the fight, not afraid to put some political capital behind a judge with a working-class background and impeccable credentials. After the news of recent weeks, with discussions of indefinite detentions and restarting military tribunals, a signal from Obama that he hasn’t forgotten his roots is a move in the right direction.

Of course we can prepare for more racist, sexist Bingo in the upcoming fight. No doubt there will be more hints that Sotomayor isn’t that smart, that she isn’t qualified, that there’s some white guy out there being oppressed by the fact that Obama’s chosen a Latina. Post-Sarah Palin, it could be harder for the GOP to turn around and make the predictable sexist cracks, though, and post-Michael Steele, when at least part of the party seems to realize it has a diversity problem, can they afford to vote against the first Latina nominee to the court?

Sotomayor got her first nomination to the bench from the same president who nominated the justice she’ll be replacing, George H.W. Bush, and is considered a moderate judge. More importantly, though, she is an urban judge, from New York and living in Manhattan, and she will be the only judge to have grown up in public housing. Is this, perhaps, the “empathy” that Obama said he wanted?

One of the things we want to see in any Supreme Court nominee is a willingness to stand up to the president who nominated her. Will Sonia Sotomayor rule against the Obama administration if a case involving state secrets, or perhaps the detainee photos that Obama has decided to keep classified, comes before her?

In 1995, the New York Times wrote of her:

“In her two and a half years on the bench, United States District Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor has earned a reputation as a sharp, outspoken and fearless jurist, someone who does not let powerful interests bully, rush or cow her into a decision.”

This was in regard to the baseball strike of that year. It fell to Sotomayor to make a decision, and she ruled in favor of the players’ union. While this surely doesn’t count as one of her most important decisions, it did place the then-youngest judge in her district in a prominent position (I wish she’d been around for the NHL lockout!). And the things being said about her then, when she wasn’t under consideration for the highest court in the land, make me feel good about her independence.

More relevant, perhaps, to cases she might hear if confirmed, is the fact that she ruled in favor of the Wall Street Journal’s publication of Vince Foster’s suicide note. She ruled that the public interest in the information outweighed privacy concerns. This did not stop President Bill Clinton from nominating her to the position she now holds, on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, though she faced a confirmation fight from conservatives who feared her ascent to the Supreme Court.

It is impossible to tell how a justice will rule until they’re on the bench. David Souter, though a Republican nominee, has been a reliable member of the liberal bloc on the court. Obama, it’s been said, couldn’t really change the makeup of the court with his nominee. But by choosing Sotomayor, he’s made a move to at least change the complexion of the court, to make it look more like America.

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Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is former deputy editor of GlobalComment. She's interested in politics and pop culture, and has a special place in her heart for comics.

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