President Barack Obama on May 26 named federal appeals judge Sonia Sotomayor as his choice to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter–making her the first Hispanic in history picked to wear the robes of a High Court justice, and giving some education professionals hope that she will be assertive for education rights.
If confirmed by the Senate, Sotomayor, 54, would join Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the second woman on the current Supreme Court and the third in U.S. history. While she was born in New York, her parents immigrated to the states from Puerto Rico.
Obama and Sotomayor both noted the historic nature of the appointment. The president said a Hispanic on the court would mark another step toward the goal of "equal justice under law."
Sotomayor said she grew up in poor surroundings and never dreamed she would one day be nominated for the nation’s highest court.
"My heart today is bursting with gratitude," Sotomayor said from the White House podium moments after being introduced by Obama.
Brian W. Jones, senior council for with Dow Lohnes PLLC, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm that says it has the nation’s largest and most diverse education practice devoted primarily to the postsecondary sector, said Sotomayor’s nomination is positive on a few different levels.
"Personally, I think it’s a positive step for the country that we would have another female member of the court. From an education standpoint, we have a growingly diverse education system … so it will be a positive thing to have a Hispanic justice," he said.
He noted that, because it is generally accepted that Sotomayor falls on the liberal side of the spectrum, she has a perspective of civil-rights issues that is probably somewhat more assertive than those of the conservative justices on the Supreme Court.
"It’s important for school districts and postsecondary [schools] to have someone who takes a much more firm stance on the rights and responsibilities public institutions have to their students and employees," he said.
Tom Finaly, vice president of administration at the online TUI University, said he believes Sotomayor’s moderate liberal rulings and personal background could make her a big proponent of higher education.
"From what I have read, her parents who moved from Puerto Rico instilled in her and her brother the importance of education," Finaly said. "She went on to be incredibly successful in high school, at Princeton undergrad, and later at Yale Law School. I would imagine she will be a supporter of legislation that creates greater access to higher education for minorities, working parents, and economically disadvantaged people. She will also serve as a great inspiration for Latinas to further their education."
Cynthia Zane, president of Hilbert College in Hamburg, N.Y., said that while she didn’t know of any education-centered decisions Sotomayor has made, she thinks her understanding of the importance to preserve the access and opportunity for students who would not be able to go to college makes her a perfect candidate.
"Her life story, from my perspective, is similar to so many students who come to Hilbert. Her mother and father didn’t go to college. She’s a first-generation college student. And she went to Princeton and Yale because of educational scholarships," Zane said. "I think someone whose life was transformed by access to higher education and funding and scholarships will be able to understand the journey that many students today are trying to complete."
Sotomayor might be best known as the judge that "saved baseball," as Obama said in his introduction of his nominee. In 1995, she made a key ruling that brought Major League Baseball back to the nation after a strike.
When Sotomayor was U.S. District Court judge in 2001, she ruled that a dyslexic woman who failed the bar exam to become a lawyer five times should be given special treatment when taking the exam again. Sotomayor said that the Americans with Disabilities Act provided that the woman should be given extra time to take the test, be allowed the use of a computer for the exam, and be given large-print questions.
She is also very involved in the Development School for Youth program, which sponsors workshops for inner-city high school students, according to a press release from the White House. Each semester, about 70 students attend 16 weekly workshops, where Sotomayor is a leader, that are designed to teach them how to function in a work setting.
Obama said Sotomayor has more experience as a judge than any current member of the High Court had when nominated, adding she has earned the "respect of colleagues on the bench," the admiration of lawyers who appear in her court, and the "adoration of her clerks."
Sotomayor spent five years as an assistant district attorney in New York County before joining a private practice in New York City, where she worked for four years. Sotomayor was nominated by George H.W. Bush to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in 1992 and was nominated by Bill Clinton to the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York in 1997. If confirmed, she will replace Souter as the only justice with experience as a trial judge.
Her 1997 nomination was held up for months, a delay Democrats attributed to Republican concerns that she might someday become a Supreme Court nominee. Sotomayor was finally confirmed by the Senate on a 68-28 vote. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., voted against her and, as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, is a key player in shaping how the GOP will handle Sotomayor.
"We must determine if Ms. Sotomayor understands that the proper role of a judge is to act as a neutral umpire of the law, calling balls and strikes fairly without regard to one’s own personal preferences or political views," Sessions said.
Obama has said he hopes Sotomayor can take her place before the justices begin their new term in October. Democrats hold a large majority in the Senate, and barring the unexpected, Sotomayor’s confirmation should be assured.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.