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Sonia Sotomayor, the 'People's Justice'

May 26, 2016 by Nicandro Iannacci


(credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(credit: Wikimedia Commons)

On May 26, 2009, President Barack Obama nominated then-Judge Sonia Sotomayor to replace Justice David Souter on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Speaking from the East Room of the White House that morning, flanked by Sotomayor and Vice President Joe Biden, the President described the essential qualities he sought in his nominee—“a rigorous intellect,” “a recognition of the limits of the judicial role”—but said that “something more” was needed:

For as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” Experience being tested by obstacles and barriers, by hardship and misfortune; experience insisting, persisting, and ultimately overcoming those barriers. It is experience that can give a person a common touch and a sense of compassion; an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live.  And that is why it is a necessary ingredient in the kind of justice we need on the Supreme Court.

As it happened, there was a sitting federal judge that fit the bill.

Sonia Maria Sotomayor was born in New York City on June 25, 1954, to native Puerto Ricans. At age seven, Sotomayor was diagnosed with diabetes; at age nine, her father passed away, leaving her mother, Celina, to look after her and her brother, Juan. Even at this early age, the future Justice was tested by “hardship and misfortune,” but she proved up to the challenge.

In 1972, Sotomayor graduated valedictorian of Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx and matriculated to Princeton University, where she ultimately graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in history. She went on to attend Yale Law School, graduating in 1979, accepting a position right out of school at the Manhattan district attorney’s office.

As a prosecutor, Sotomayor established herself quickly as a no-nonsense go-getter with a dose of humanity, working on big cases involving child pornography and the “Tarzan” killer, among other unseemly crimes. In 1984, she transitioned to corporate work, joining the law firm Pavia & Harcourt with a focus on intellectual property and copyright. Four years later, she made partner.

On November 21, 1991, President George H.W. Bush nominated Sotomayor to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. From her time on the court, Sotomayor is most famous for her temporary injunction in Silverman v. MLB Player Relations Committee, which President Obama half-joking credited as having “saved baseball.” In that case, she ended a players’ strike by temporarily halting new labor rules imposed by the league’s owners. Most of the 1995 season was played, and eventually, an agreement suitable to players and owners was reached.

Shortly thereafter, on June 25, 1997, President Bill Clinton nominated Sotomayor to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Among the notable cases she heard there, perhaps the most controversial was Ricci v. DeStefano. In that case, Sotomayor joined two judges in upholding the rejection a lawsuit from white and Hispanic firefighters in New Haven, CT, who were denied promotions after a civil service test produced a disproportional number of white candidates relatively to minority candidates. The firefighters had argued that their rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment had been violated; Sotomayor disagreed, accepting the city’s claim that it was simply fulfilling its “disparate impact” obligations under Title VII. Ricci, in part, led conservative critics to call Sotomayor “a liberal judicial activist” who thinks that “one’s sex, race, and ethnicity ought to affect the decisions one renders from the bench.” (The Supreme Court ultimately reversed the Second Circuit’s ruling.)

11-year-old Maddie was called up to the stage to share a special moment with Justice Sonia Sotomayor at the National Constitution Center. (March 1, 2013)

Still, on August 6, 2009, less than three months after her appearance in the East Room and just a month after her confirmation hearings, Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed by the Senate, 68-31, as the newest member of the Court, the nation’s first Hispanic Justice, and only the third female Justice.

In seven years on the Court, Justice Sotomayor has staked out notable positions in cases involving race, including a flaming draft dissent in Fisher v. University of Texas (2013) that reportedly led the Court to compromise behind the scenes and send the case back to the lower courts, resulting in its reappearance this term. And she wrote in stark terms about the state of U.S. race relations in her dissent in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (2014).

Other highlights include her concurrence in U.S. v. Jones (2012), opening a door to the expansion of privacy rights; her dissent in Glossip v. Gross (2015), raging against administration of the death penalty; and her landmark votes on campaign finance and same-sex marriage in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015).

Outside the Court, Sotomayor has made frequent appearances in non-traditional settings for a Supreme Court Justice, including talk shows, baseball games, and Sesame Street. Even when speaking in traditional settings, such as law schools or lawyers’ meetings, she has tended to speak less from an academic perspective than her colleagues on the Court do. David Fontana, associate professor of law at George Washington University and past speaker at the National Constitution Center, has suggested that Sotomayor is forging a new model for Justices, a “People’s Justice” who actively tries to engage and persuade everyday Americans.

Whatever her influence on the Constitution and the nation may be, Sotomayor’s nomination to the Court is surely a landmark moment in U.S. history.

Nicandro Iannacci is a web content strategist at the National Constitution Center.

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