- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 26, 2009

UPDATED:

President Obama announced Tuesday that he will nominate U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court, a historic nomination that would make her the first Hispanic on the high court if confirmed by the Senate.

The president called Judge Sotomayor “an inspiring woman whom I believe will make a great justice. He made the announcement before a crowd of government officials, lawmakers and staffers inside the White House East Room, with Ms. Sotomayor and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. at his side.

“I don’t take this decision lightly,” Mr. Obama said. “I’ve made it only after deep reflection and careful deliberation.”

The president said he wanted a nominee with intellectual rigor and an appreciation for the limits of judicial power — “a judge’s job is to interpret, not make law.” But he said it was Judge Sotomayor’s “own extraordinary journey” from the housing projects of the South Bronx that he thinks will give her the “common touch” he wanted in a justice.

Mr. Obama also touted Judge Sotomayor as a jurist with moderate appeal because she was first nominated to the federal bench by former President George H.W. Bush, a Republican.

Judge Sotomayor, 54, wearing a black business suit and a light green blouse, said her heart was “bursting with gratitude” to her family and friends.

She called the nomination “the most humbling honor of my life.”

“You have nominated me to serve on the country’s highest court, and I am deeply moved,” she told the president.

Judge Sotomayor also honored her mother, Celina Sotomayor, who raised her and her brother by herself after their father died when they were young. Celina Sotomayor has since married Omar Lopez, who was in attendance.

“I am all I am because of her, and I am only half the woman she is,” Judge Sotomayor said. She also thanked her brother, Juan, who is now a doctor, who was present with his wife and children.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, called the nomination “historic” and said Judge Sotomayor “will be in the mold of Justice Souter, who understands the real-world impact of the Court’s decisions, rather than the mold of the conservative activists who second-guess Congress, and who through judicial extremism undercut laws meant to protect Americans.”

But conservative groups pointed to a past statement by Judge Sotomayor that “the court of appeals is where policy is made” to say that she is not the jurist the president said he was nominating.

“This is a very aggressive decision that will trigger a national debate on the issue of judicial activism,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice. “This nomination raises serious questions about the issue of legislating from the bench.”

If confirmed, the federal appeals court judge from New York’s 2nd Circuit would replace retiring Justice David Souter and would be only the third female justice in history.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg is now the only female member of the court and is expected to retire in the near future because of pancreatic cancer.

The president called on the Senate to confirm Judge Sotomayor “as swiftly as possible.” He said he wants to have his pick confirmed or close to confirmation before Congress leaves Washington in early August for its annual month-long recess. That leaves lawmakers less than 60 days to make progress.

But Republicans have said they may try to prolong the process further, while still seeking to confirm Judge Sotomayor in time for the fall term, which begins in October.

Republicans reacted cautiously to the nomination, saying they look forward to learning more about the nomination.

“Senate Republicans will treat Judge Sotomayor fairly. But we will thoroughly examine her record to ensure she understands that the role of a jurist in our democracy is to apply the law evenhandedly, despite their own feelings or personal or political preferences,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

Mr. Obama, who taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago, chose Judge Sotomayor, the child of natives of Puerto Rico who was raised in a Bronx public housing project, over several other accomplished female jurists and attorneys.

Elena Kagan, the U.S. solicitor general, and Diane P. Wood, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, were considered seriously by the White House.

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat, said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” it was a good pick.

“I would expect some very interesting hearings, but I would expect her to be confirmed,” he said.

Though Judge Sotomayor graduated from some of the best schools with high honors, she has faced questions from the left about whether she will bring the intellectual firepower needed to counter conservative heavyweights on the court such as Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who were nominated by President George W. Bush.

Conservatives, meanwhile, are certain to highlight Judge Sotomayor’s role in upholding a lower court’s ruling that 20 New Haven, Conn., firefighters — 19 of them white and 1 of them Hispanic — could not reverse their local government’s decision to throw out two promotional exams because no black firefighters passed the tests.

The case — Ricci, et al. v. DeStefano, et al — is under review by the Supreme Court.

But the president’s pick ensures Democrats will continue to build broad support in the growing Hispanic-American electorate, a key voting bloc that both political parties see as up for grabs.

Mr. Obama said frequently in the days leading up to his announcement that he was not focused on gender and ethnicity as much as on whether a potential justice would interpret the law with “a common touch” and with “empathy.”

“You have to be able to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes and get a sense of how the law might work or not work in practical day-to-day living,” he said in an interview with C-SPAN on Friday at the White House.

Judge Sotomayor, who is divorced and has no children, fits that description, having worked her way up from a hardscrabble childhood. She was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at 8. One year later her father died, leaving her mother alone to raise her and her younger brother while working as a nurse.

Judge Sotomayor was accepted into Princeton University, where she earned a bachelor of arts degree in history in 1976. She earned a law degree from Yale in 1979 and was editor of the Yale Law Journal.

She spent her first few years out of school as an assistant district attorney in New York and in 1984 became a private-practice attorney specializing in intellectual property at Pavia & Harcourt, a New York-based firm with offices in Paris and Milan.

Judge Sotomayor was nominated to the federal bench by former President George H.W. Bush, a Republican and the same president who, to conservatives’ chagrin, also nominated Mr. Souter, who evolved over the past two decades into a left-leaning jurist.

Mr. Bush nominated her for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in November 1991, and she was confirmed in August 1992.

Some conservatives have argued in recent years that Judge Sotomayor was nominated by Mr. Bush only as a compromise to move along other judicial nominations being held up by Democratic lawmakers.

In 1997, Judge Sotomayor was nominated by former President Bill Clinton to the 2nd Circuit seat she now holds and was confirmed by the Republican-majority Senate.