Who Is Sonia Sotomayor? Obama High Court Pick Has Slim Record on Church-State Issues

By Bathija, Sandhya | Church & State, July-August 2009 | Go to article overview

Who Is Sonia Sotomayor? Obama High Court Pick Has Slim Record on Church-State Issues


Bathija, Sandhya, Church & State


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When President Barack Obama announced Sonia Sotomayor as his nominee to replace Justice David Souter on the U.S. Supreme Court, he sold his choice to Americans by telling her compelling life story.

Rising from a childhood of poverty in the Bronx, Sotomayor graduated with honors from Princeton. After Yale Law School (where she was editor of the law journal), she became the first Hispanic federal judge in New York state.

Said Obama, "Along the way, she's faced down barriers, overcome the odds, lived out the American Dream that brought her parents here so long ago. And even as she has accomplished so much in her life, she has never forgotten where she began, never lost touch with the community that supported her.

"What Sonia will bring to the Court, then," Obama continued, "is not only the knowledge and experience acquired over a course of a brilliant legal career, but the wisdom accumulated from an inspiring life's journey."

Currently a judge on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Sotomayor will make history as the first Hispanic and the third woman on the high court if she is confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

The Sotomayor nomination has sparked a large amount of comment, much of it divided along ideological and partisan lines.

Many progressive groups have praised her for her accomplishments. At the same time, Religious Right organizations are rallying against her appointment, charging that she is a "liberal activist" judge.

TV preacher and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson told Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, "I think Obama has reached out to one of the most left-wing judges that there is in the United States. I think it's an outrage."

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins echoed the same sentiment.

"Judge Sotomayor appears to subscribe to a very liberal judicial philosophy that considers it appropriate for judges to impose their personal views from the bench," he said. "President Obama promised us a jurist committed to the 'rule of law; but, instead, he appears to have nominated a legislator to the Supreme Court."

Bruce Hausknecht, a judicial analyst for James Dobson's Focus on the Family Action, also expressed concerns that Sotomayor is a judicial activist.

"From what we know about her, though, Judge Sotomayor considers policy-making to be among a judge's roles, no matter what the law says," he charged. "She disregards the notion of judicial impartiality, even stating that as a Latina woman with her life experience she should 'more often than not' reach a better conclusion than a 'white male who hasn't lived that life.'"

Unlike those on the right, many progressive groups are pleased with Sotomayor's personal story, cultural background and her educational credentials.

"The president is making history by nominating the first Latina to the Supreme Court," said Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice. "Judge Sotomayor has more federal judicial experience than any justice nominated to the Supreme Court in the past 100 years.

"This nomination," she continued, "shows that President Obama is appointing judges who understand that the role of the courts is to give everyone a chance to be heard, to stand up for their rights, and get justice."

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights called Sotomayor "a uniquely well-qualified Supreme Court nominee, someone with a sharp and independent mind, and a record of excellence and integrity.

"Besides her superb intellectual ability and a distinguished three-decade judicial career," the Conference said, "she brings a quality of common sense understanding of how laws affect the realities of people's daily lives."

Sotomayor grew up in the projects in New York City, where it was well-known in her neighborhood that her household had an Encyclopedia Britannica set. As a kid, she loved Nancy Drew mystery books and "Perry Mason. …

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