For many people, the mere picture of Sonia Sotomayor alongside President Barack Obama was a vindication of his decision to appoint her to the Supreme Court. A Hispanic woman, she looks nothing like the justices Americans grew up with. Few would deny the power of that image to reaffirm fundamental American principles of equality and opportunity -- particularly coming from the nation's first black president.
But Sotomayor has to bring more than diversity to the court. As one of the people serving as the final arbiter of matters legal and constitutional, including some of the most vexing and divisive issues facing the country, she has to bring the qualities that make an excellent judge. The evidence so far suggests that she is up to the job.
At 54, she has been an editor of the Yale Law Journal, a prosecutor, a partner in a top-flight commercial law practice, a federal trial court judge and, for the last 11 years, a federal appeals judge. "No one on the current court has that complete package of experience," said Tom Goldstein, a Washington attorney and blogger. In her current job, she has earned a reputation, as The New York Times noted in 1995, as "sharp, outspoken and fearless."
Those qualities won't endear her to conservatives who fear she will rule according to her personal biases rather than on the facts and the law. The Judicial Confirmation Network denounced her as "a liberal judicial activist of the first order." The nominee gave her critics some ammunition in 2002 when she surmised 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."
You would expect a nominee chosen by Obama to be on the liberal side of the judicial spectrum. Still, if Sotomayor thinks she is entitled to take the side of litigants she finds sympathetic or those on the "liberal" side, regardless of the legal merits, she deserves to be rejected by the Senate. The record, though, suggests otherwise.
True, she did rule against white firefighters in New Haven, Conn., who challenged the constitutionality of throwing out test results after no blacks scored high enough to get promoted. But even Northwestern University law professor Martin Redish, a critic of the verdict, thinks it was "hardly an outrageous decision."
She has stressed that the "duty of a judge is to follow the law, not to question its plain terms." On the bench, she ruled against an abortion-rights group challenging President George W. Bush's ban on aid to foreign organizations that perform or promote abortions. She overturned a law banning a menorah display on public property. She agreed to admit evidence obtained by FBI agents acting in good faith on a search warrant that turned out to be defective.
Any of those, right or wrong, could be characterized as "conservative decisions." But the point is not that she's a closet conservative -- it's that ideology didn't seem to determine her decisions.
Some liberals are disappointed that Obama didn't choose a certifiably brilliant left-leaning thinker who could challenge the conservatives and moderates on the court. But Sotomayor appears to have ample intellectual heft for the job, and she may turn out to be influential in her own way.
The Senate has a responsibility to undertake a thorough examination of her record and her thinking. But for now, it looks as though her critics have a tough task ahead of them.
Sonia Sotomayor: Bring More Than Diversity To The Table
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