President Barack Obama named New York federal judge Sonia Sotomayor as his pick for the Supreme Court this morning, and top Republicans were girding for a bruising confirmation battle.
If confirmed by the Senate, Sotomayor, 54, would succeed retiring Justice David Souter. The daughter of Puerto Rican parents, she would be the first Hispanic to occupy a seat on the nation's highest court.
Sotomayor, a former editor of the Yale Law Review, grew up in the projects in the Bronx and went on to attend Princeton and Yale Law School. She was named to the federal bench by President George H.W. Bush in 1991, and elevated to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals by President Clinton in 1997. A lifelong Yankees fan, Sotomayor is divorced, has no children and has suffered from diabetes since she was eight years old.
"She has never forgotten where she began," Obama said, praising Sotomayor for her "depth of experience and breadth of perspective that will be invaluable as a Supreme Court justice."
After being introduced, Sotomayor expressed her gratitude to the President and to her family, especially her mother.
"You have nominated me to serve on the country's highest court and I am deeply moved," she said.
Obama met Sotomayor for the first time in a seven-hour session at the White House Thursday. Aides said the President was "blown away" by the jurist..
Addressing head-on criticism that she is a judicial activist, Sotomayor said she looks "forward to working with the Senate in the confirmation process."
"I firmly believe in the rule of law as the foundation for all our basic rights," she said, praising the founding for setting forth enduring principles. "It would be a profound privilege for me to play a role in applying those principles to the challenges we face today," she added.
Sotomayor has not issued any major opinions involving abortion, traditionally the most polarizing issue in Supreme Court nominations. But Republicans opposed to her confirmation could seize on a 2005 speech at Duke University Law School, in which Sotomayor appeared to embrace the idea of judges making law from the bench.
In another speech, in 2001, Sotomayor questioned the adage often cited by her female predecessors on the court, Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that a wise old man and a wise old woman would reach the same conclusions in deciding cases.
"I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life," she said at the University of California at Berkeley.
Also likely to come up at her confirmation hearing is a very recent case in which employment discrimination was alleged by a white New Hampshire firefighter. Sotomayor joined an opinion that denied the claims of firefighters who had been passed over for promotion because of their race.
But Sotomayor’s supporters say she meets Obama’s stated criteria for a nominee: having legal and real world experience, as well as an appreciation for the impact of court decisions on everyday life.
“She is a rule-bound pragmatist--very geared toward determining what the right answer is and what the law dictates, but her general approach is, unsurprisingly, influenced by her unique background,” one former clerk told The New Republic. “She grew up in a situation of disadvantage, and was able, by virtue of the system operating in such a fair way, to accomplish what she did. I think she sees the law as an instrument that can accomplish the same thing for other people, a system that, if administered fairly, can give everyone the fair break they deserve, regardless of who they are.”
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said his party will treat 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 even-handedly, despite their own feelings or personal or political preferences," McConnell said.
Sen. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat who helped negotiate a compromise to avoid filibusters aimed at President George W. Bush's judicial nominees, also kept open the filibuster option against Obama's nominee.
"We don't want to have to read judges' minds. So I think that's the test — will they be an activist or not?" Nelson said. "I would hope that there wouldn't be any circumstances that would be so extreme with any of the president's nominees that the other side would feel the need to filibuster or that I might feel the need to filibuster in a case of extraordinary circumstances."
Under Senate rules, a single senator can mount a filibuster by objecting to consideration of a bill or nominee. It takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster and move to a final vote. Democrats hold 59 votes in the 100-seat Senate with Sen. Arlen Specter's defection from the GOP and two Democratic-voting independents. One seat is open.