Just as Americans who did not support his candidacy could recognize the historic significance of Barack Obama’s election as the first black president, Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation as a Supreme Court justice can be acknowledged even by her opponents as a landmark achievement.
Sotomayor, whatever one thinks of her judicial views, was a clearly qualified candidate for the court who worked her way up through the system. Her confirmation as the first Hispanic justice is yet another example that our nation is the most open, pluralistic, opportunity-driven society in the world.
Of course her ethnicity played a role in her nomination by President Obama. But it has been by intentional acts of inclusion that America has broken down barrier after barrier to opportunity throughout its history.
The Supreme Court has always been a reflection of the political world in which it operates. As the saying goes, elections have consequences, and presidents always appoint people with whom they agree philosophically and usually with some political considerations in mind.
Mississippi Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker opposed Sotomayor’s confirmation on grounds of philosophy and principle. Neither challenged her credentials for the job.
However, nine Republican senators voted for her, indicating Sotomayor is not so far out of the judicial mainstream as some of her more vigorous opponents have tried to portray.
Sotomayor may yet surprise, as some justices have, but her judicial record suggests a moderately liberal inclination. It was remarks in a 2001 speech about life experience and ethnic background shaping judicial approach that got her into hot water in her confirmation hearings. This was a legitimate subject for senators to probe, but assertions that she was a racist were overblown and inflammatory.
Cynics would say Republican senators who supported Sotomayor’s confirmation did so out of fear of offending Hispanic voters. Maybe so, though some like Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee – No. 3 in the Senate Republican leadership – surely had other reasons, such as a return to the old standards for confirming a justice. Alexander said he might differ with Sotomayor philosophically, but “she is well-qualified by experience, temperament, character and intellect.”
That’s the old standard that both parties would do well to follow when their opposite-party presidents, elected by the people, present their choices. The partisan and special interest venom that has surrounded so many Supreme Court nominees in the last 20-plus years hasn’t been good for the country.
What is good for the country is a visible recognition that in America, anyone of any background can rise as far as his or her talents and work ethic will allow. In that sense, Sotomayor is a quintessentially American figure.
NEMS Daily Journal