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Obama Pick Sonia Sotomayor Reflects America

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05/26/2009 @ 08:45am

When Supreme Court Justice David Souter announced his planned retirement, the pressure was on President Obama to add a second woman to a bench.

At the same time, Obama was encouraged to pick a Hispanic justice.

He did both, and a good deal more.

Obama's nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit as his first appointment to the high court, was made at the White House this morning, with the president hailing her as "an inspiring woman who I think will make a great justice."

Describing Sotomayor as a lawyer who "has worked at almost every level of our judicial system," Obama noted that she has "more experience on the bench and more varied experience of the bench than anyone currently serving on the Supreme Court when they were appointed."

While much will be made of the fact that Obama has chosen a woman of Puerto Rican background to serve on a court that until the 1960s was made up entirely of white man, the president has, as well, chosen a jurist whose specific experience will make her a key player on a court that, in coming years, will be taking on more and more cases involving financial and economic issues.

Judge Sotomayor's 11 years of service on the federal appeals bench (as an appointee of Bill Clinton) have been served just a few blocks from Wall Street in Manhattan, as were her six years as a federal judge (as an appointee of George H.W. Bush as the recommendation of former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan).

"As the top federal appeals court in the nation's commercial center," the New York Times notes, "the court is known in particular for its expertise in corporate and securities law."

Obama specifically cited Sotomayor's legal skills with regard to financial and corporate issues as something that made her particularly appealing as a nominee.

The daughter of a factory worker who died when she was a child, Sotomayor--who diagnosed with diabetes as an eight year old -- was raised by her mother, a nurse at a methadone clinic. Inspired by "Perry Mason" television programs, Sotomayor graduated from Princeton University summa cum laude in 1976 and then from Yale Law School, where she was an editor of the Yale Law Journal.

Before her appointment to the federal bench, Sotomayor served as an assistant district attorney for Manhattan, working with D.A. Robert Morgenthau, who developed a reputation for policing--or at least trying to police--Wall Street.

Obama picked Sotomayor from a slate of women finalists that reportedly included Judge Diane P. Wood of Chicago, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Solicitor General Elena Kagan.

Sotomayor was not the most liberal of the prospective jurists, but that did not matter to conservatives who have been preparing for a fight. Wendy Long, counsel to the right's Judicial Confirmation Network, came out swinging: "Judge Sotomayor is a liberal judicial activist of the first order who thinks her own personal political agenda is more important than the law as written. She thinks that judges should dictate policy, and that one's sex, race, and ethnicity ought to affect the decisions one renders from the bench."

That's a reference to a case involving applications for promotions within the New Haven, Connecticut fire department, in which Sotomayor was a member of a judicial panel that objected to tests used to evaluate candidates for promotion when no minority candidates ranked at the top of the list of those who took the test.

That white male jurists agreed with Sotomayor will be lost on her critics. But her record is generally seen as being very much in the mainstream of legal debates about diversity and affirmative action.

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John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Online Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress.

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