Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 11 June 2009
Issue No. 950
International
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

'Almost a perfect mix'

Obama's choice for the Supreme Court is another American dream story, as told by Anayat Durrani and Eric Walberg

Click to view caption
Obama presenting his nominee for the Supreme Court vacancy

Federal Appeals Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor is on the path to become the first Latina and third woman to serve on the High Court. If confirmed by the Senate, she would join Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the only other woman on the court.

The 54-year-old daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants grew up in a public housing project in the South Bronx and lost her father at the age of nine. But this and her medical condition as a Type 1 diabetic did not stop Sotomayor from graduating from both Princeton and Yale.

United States President Barack Obama said he chose Sotomayor for her inspiring life journey and because she has "a distinguished career that spans three decades". Taunting his Republican foes, Obama noted that Sotomayor "was nominated to the US District Court by a Republican president, George H W Bush."

Since the announcement, conservatives opposing the appointment of Sotomayor have zeroed in on a statement she made at a 2001 lecture in Berkeley, California, discussing how a judge's personal experiences in life affects their perspective. In her lecture she said, "I would hope that a Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." "She's a quintessential spokesman for racial spoils," charged Abigail Thernstrom.

Obama defended Sotomayor, saying "I am sure she would have restated it, but if you look in the entire sweep of the essay that she wrote [in 2001], what is clear is that she was simply saying that her life experiences will give her information about the struggles and hardships that people are going through, that will make her a good judge," he said.

In his weekly address, Obama addressed critics' opposition of Sotomayor's nomination solely on her past statement. "There are, of course, some in Washington who are attempting to draw old battle lines and playing the usual political games, pulling a few comments out of context to paint a distorted picture of Judge Sotomayor's record," said Obama. "What the election of Obama said is, people want to move forward rather than backwards," said the president's senior adviser David Axelrod.

If confirmed to the US Supreme Court, she will be the sixth Roman Catholic of the nine justices. Some critics have brought up this fact and questioned how her Catholic upbringing would effect the make up of the Supreme Court.

In contrast, when Elena Kagan was seen as a potential nominee for the upcoming position vacated by David Souter at the end of June, the New York Times did not think her Jewish heritage needed to be pointed out nor that had she been confirmed it would have brought the number of Jews on the court to three.

As for the claim that Sotomayor will be the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, this ignores the fact that Benjamin Cardozo, who served on the court from 1932-38 was the descendant of Spanish Jews who settled in New Amsterdam (now New York) in 1654.

Gambling on using the nomination to create a focus for opposition to Obama, former Republican speaker of the House Newt Gingrich baldly accused Sotomayor of being a racist. Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh charged last week that Sotomayor "brings a form of bigotry or racism to the court" and called the president "the greatest living example of a reverse racist." He went as far as to say that choosing Sotomayor was like hiring a former Ku Klux Klan leader for the position.

But more sensible Republicans, aware that their party is now in disarray and showing no signs of recovery, have been careful not to be too strong in their opposition to Sotomayor, keeping in mind that Hispanic voters constitute the largest and most rapidly growing ethnic group in the US. Some are even openly supporting her. Senator Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, dismissed Limbaugh's description of Sotomayor on NBC's "Meet the Press". "We should not demagogue race. It's an important issue in our culture and our country." He was positive about her nomination, calling here "almost an ideal mix".

In a floor speech Monday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said that he had assured Sotomayor that she would be treated "fairly and respectfully". "Throughout this process, Republicans will be guided by a few simple principles. But perhaps the most important ones are these: Americans expect and should receive equal treatment under the law, and Americans want judges who understand their role is to interpret the law, not write it," he added.

McConnell said that Republicans would require time to go over her record of some 3,600 cases. "For Justice Alito, the Senate had 70 days to prepare for an informed hearing. And like Judge Sotomayor, Justice Alito had thousands of cases for senators to review," he said.

So unless something untoward happens in the next few weeks, Sotomayor's nomination looks secure, as Republicans have too few votes in the Senate to block confirmation even if they decide they don't like her after all. President Obama has asked for a vote on the nomination by the end of July before the Senate takes its vacation for the month of August.

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