In 1998, then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, decided to delay the vote on the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to sit on the United States Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. The reason was simple: Republicans feared that if Judge Sotomayor were quickly seated on the Court of Appeals, she would rise to the top of President Bill Clinton’s shortlist of nominees for the Supreme Court in the event that Justice John Paul Stevens retired. Ultimately Judge Sotomayor was approved for her seat on the Court of Appeals, and 11 years later, she’s been nominated for the Supreme Court.
Why did the Republicans in 1998 so fear the prospect of a Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor? For the same reasons they do today. Sonia Sotomayor is a powerful woman with a powerful story, who represents in many ways the arc of Latino struggle in this country. Her nomination Tuesday by President Barack Obama has the potential to galvanize and strengthen Latino voters in this country and to firmly lock the Latino vote into the Democratic Party column in a way that may be irreversible for a generation or more.
But what should not be lost amid the political calculation is how truly historic and important this nomination is for Latinos, who constitute 15 percent of the U.S. population. The appointment of a Latino to the Supreme Court is long overdue. As the Hispanic National Bar Association pointed out in a recent news release, there are more than 82 Latino federal judges, including 14 on the federal courts of appeal. Nevertheless, Latino lawyers are underrepresented as partners in our nation’s law firms, on law faculties and on the bench.
Moreover, Judge Sotomayor perfectly captures President Obama’s campaign promise to appoint a judge with “empathy,” a word that has been picked over and analyzed in an effort to get away from the irreducible truth that judges are people, too. They have their own experiences and their own stories. And those experiences influence their worldview and their sense of how the law does and should work in the lives of litigants who come before the court.
Judge Sotomayor’s personal story is deeply compelling. In a year when Americans have wrapped their minds around the concept of a black president whose mother was from Kansas and father from Africa, and a first lady who’s the Chicago-bred daughter of a working-class dad and a stay-at-home mom, Judge Sotomayor’s story is another from the central casting office of 21st-century politics. She is the daughter of parents who moved from Puerto Rico to New York, and her childhood was firmly working class. Her father was a laborer, her mother a nurse; they worked hard to send their daughter to private Catholic schools. She dreamed of becoming Nancy Drew and then Perry Mason. A diagnosis of diabetes at age 8 could have restricted her dreams but seems to only have fueled them. She was a bright kid, hardworking like her parents, and ambitious. She went on to Princeton University, and then Yale Law School, where she was an editor of the law review. She distinguished herself as a New York City prosecutor, and later as a partner in a law firm working on copyright infringement.
Nominated by President George H.W. Bush to serve on the federal trial court in New York, Judge Sotomayor was only in her 30s when she became a federal judge. As President Obama noted in his announcement, she would be the only justice on the Supreme Court who has had experience as a trial judge, overseeing the day-to-day presentation of witnesses and evidence in often complex cases. And then came the bumpy effort by President Clinton to elevate her to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. It was no secret that a judge like Sonia Sotomayor would be a difficult one for Republicans to defeat were she ever to be nominated to the high court.
For many black and Latino lawyers, who rub shoulders every day with brilliant and successful racial minorities, Judge Sotomayor’s story—like that of the Obamas—is not an entirely unusual one. Many of us have spent our careers interacting with lawyers who’ve stood on the shoulders of their hardworking parents and grandparents to make it into the highest levels of their profession. But for many average Americans, the existence of the Obamas and the Sotomayors is a revelation. By selecting her, President Obama has further turned his historic election into a truly transformative one for this country—one that has the potential to open the eyes of the nation to the range of truly diverse and dynamic lives of Americans who defy conventional stereotypes.
Judge Sotomayor also shines a light into the lives of Latinos who very rarely make it into the political spotlight. Republicans have largely pinned their hopes for garnering Latino votes on the Southwest, where Mexican Americans constitute a significant portion of the population in places like Texas and California. But Sotomayor represents a competing segment of the Latino population northern, Puerto Rican and Central American Latinos, and who tend to be urban Democrats more closely politically allied with African Americans.
And that is what makes this political moment so difficult for Republicans. Judge Sotomayor will not be easily caricatured (notwithstanding recent commentary, which will probably continue unabated, suggesting that she is temperamental and not brilliant). In fact, she’s likely to become a heroine for Latinos at a time when the immigration debate has unleashed sometimes violent hostility toward Latinos in some states and offensive caricatures of the role Latinos play in this country.
Sotomayor is smart, forthright, fearless and confident. Like any highly successful minority woman in a highly competitive profession, she’s had to be better than many of her male and white colleagues to get ahead (a fact that makes even more galling the efforts to paint Judge Sotomayor’s intellect as mediocre).
We’ve got months to mull over the politics of Judge Sotomayor’s selection. Today, let’s celebrate the significance of this nomination; not just for Latinos, but for an America moving closer to its promise of equality.
Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and a civil rights lawyer.