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Op-Ed: Newsom can have a historic ‘Sotomayor moment’ by appointing a Latina to the state Supreme Court

Sonia Sotomayor testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 15, 2009.
Sonia Sotomayor, nominated to the Supreme Court by President Obama, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee during her confirmation process on July 15, 2009.

(Charles Dharapak / Associated Press)

On May 26, 2009, President Obama made history by nominating Sonia Sotomayor to the United States Supreme Court. It was a pivotal moment in Obama’s relationship with us Latinas. His selection of Sotomayor to be the court’s first Latina justice communicated and acknowledged that Latinas play a vital part in our nation’s story and are key to the future of our democracy.

Today, Gov. Gavin Newsom is well-positioned to have his own “Sotomayor moment” by appointing the first Latina to the California Supreme Court.

In a state where 20% of the population is Latina, one has never served on the state Supreme Court. The governor has the opportunity to correct this omission by naming a Latina to fill the vacancy left by Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, who stepped down from the court in September.

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Currently, only 11% of the state’s judicial bench is Latino. We need to advance Latino representation in all courts. Having a Latina justice would be a decisive step toward making the state Supreme Court truly representative of all Californians and help advance racial, ethnic and gender equity in the judicial system.

Our highest court will be addressing critical issues directly affecting Latinas, including reproductive rights, immigration, criminal justice reform, discriminatory work practices, education and more. And yet, Latinas feel marginalized and underrepresented.

A recent poll we conducted showed 68% of California Latinas are concerned about being discriminated against when seeking employment or when purchasing or renting a home; 44% feel discriminated against because of their race or ethnicity overall.

In a state where 16% of the workforce is Latina, Latinas have disproportionately experienced the economic damage and health impacts of the pandemic. The appointment of a Latina justice would give a voice to California’s 7.7 million Latinas, so many of whom have kept the economy functioning as essential workers.

Representation in our judicial system is particularly important. A 2016 study showed that the appointment of Justice Sotomayor dramatically increased Latinos’ approval of the Supreme Court, empowered community engagement, and increased trust in the judicial system. Not only does diversity empower underrepresented groups, it also affects how cases are decided.

It’s been well established that decision-making bodies that are representative of the people they serve will produce better and more innovative solutions for all. Research shows that when the public workforce is demographically diverse, policy outcomes will better reflect the interests of all groups represented. Likewise, corporations with diverse leaders outperform less diverse companies on profitability.

Newsom has said he has an unwavering commitment to diversity and inclusion. This court seat gives him a chance to demonstrate this commitment and make history. There are a number of extremely well-qualified Latina candidates who could pass the close scrutiny given a nominee to the Supreme Court — all they need is the opportunity.

This is a pivotal moment for California to again show national leadership and set an example. Newsom can lead by continuing to build on his track record of diverse appointments and ensure that the contributions and values of Latinas are represented on this court.

Helen Iris Torres is chief executive of Hispanas Organized for Political Equality.


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