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Friday, July 17, 2009

In a League of Her Own

After four grueling days of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Judge Sonia Sotomayor has proven that she has the intellect, the discipline, and the temperament, not to mention the grit and the stamina, to merit her place on the U.S. Supreme Court. She graciously and patiently responded to repetitive questioning on the same issues from Republican senators through three rounds of questioning. Throughout, she validated the comments of one of her earliest champions, New York Prosecuting Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who described her as always “a step ahead.” Judge Sotomayor proved herself to be a thoughtful, engaged witness who will be a welcome addition to the Supreme Court and should be confirmed without delay.

By contrast, Republican senators showed themselves to be far less interested in Judge Sotomayor’s qualification for the bench than her willingness to adopt a far-right agenda – perhaps believing the two are one and the same. Instead of questioning Judge Sotomayor on her seventeen year record on the bench, Republican senators virtually ignored the thousands of decisions in which she joined to focus narrowly on issues representative of their political agenda.

Throughout the questioning, Republicans questioned Judge Sotomayor aggressively on the Ricci v DeStefano decision, the challenge by white firefighters to the City of New Haven’s voluntary attempt to avoid discriminating against minority firefighters, suggesting that Judge Sotomayor’s own history as a Latina affected her ruling. They even trotted out Mr. Ricci himself as a witness at the end of the fourth day, who could not opine on the legal basis for the court’s decision. Judge Sotomayor, however, stood by the decision, and her panel’s belief that it followed well established Supreme Court and Second Circuit precedent. Judge Sotomayor also noted that not only was her panel unanimous, but that a majority of her colleagues on the Second Circuit agreed with the panel. Even the Supreme Court was divided on the case as a bare 5-4 majority voted to overturn. Far from denting the good faith of the Second Circuit panel, Republicans only managed to highlight to the degree to which the current Supreme Court under Chief Justice Roberts has veered to the right, and jettisoned long-held understandings of the law. Even Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) appeared to concede the good faith of the lower courts, including Judge Sotomayor, urging Mr. Ricci to remember that “not so very long ago, the test was rigged a different way.”

Republicans also used the hearings to promote gun ownership – and their close relationship with gun advocates. Not only did they question Judge Sotomayor at length and over all four days about a single case in which she heard a challenge to a New York weapons’ restriction, they invited gun advocates, including a representative of the NRA, to testify after Judge Sotomayor. Judge Sotomayor resisted efforts to force her to opine on the legality of certain state restrictions on gun ownership that were the subject of challenges likely to come before the Supreme Court in the near future, but consistently pointed out that the case she decided fell squarely within both Second Circuit and Supreme Court precedent, and that as a Second Circuit judge, it was not her place to reverse the Supreme Court. In so doing, she exhibited the sort of judicial deference and restraint that Republicans so often say they look for in judicial nominees.

Although the hearings focused little attention on Judge Sotomayor’s legal record, Republicans turned again and again to speeches she gave at law schools around the country, and her Board work on behalf of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund (PRLDEF), a nonprofit based in New York which is dedicated to protecting and advancing civil rights. One Republican witness, Linda Chavez, a Reagan appointee, even turned to Judge Sotomayor’s college thesis to support her personal challenge to Judge Sotomayor’s qualifications for the Supreme Court. In the end, however, Judge Sotomayor firmly and unwaveringly affirmed her commitment both to her own heritage as a source of inspiration, and the rule of law as a guiding principle in her jurisprudence. In a statement during her first day of testimony, Judge Sotomayor was unequivocal: “I do not believe that any ethnic, racial, or gender group has an advantage in sound judging. I do believe that every person has an equal opportunity to be a good and wise judge regardless of their background or life experiences.” She never wavered from this principle in her testimony, nor is there any evidence in her lengthy jurisprudence that Judge Sotomayor has ever allowed her personal beliefs or her heritage to guide her legal decision-making.

Robert Morgenthau, a founding board member of PRLDEF, offered perhaps the most resounding defense of Judge Sotomayor’s statements, history and legal record when he noted: “it is to her credit that she remembers where she came from.”
Judge Sonia Sotomayor has the legal acumen, intellect and judgment needed for a seat on the nation’s highest court. As a woman who has dedicated long hours to reaching back and inspiring students, women and people of color to pursue their dreams and take pride in the legal profession, and who “remembers where she came from,” she will bring a much needed perspective. We look forward to seeing her take her well-deserved place on the Supreme Court.

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