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Obama Announces Nomination of Sonia Sotomayor

Posted May 26, 2009 7:48 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Updated: President Obama has announced the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the New York City-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter.

In a press conference this morning, Obama called Sotomayor "an inspiring woman" with more experience on the bench than any of the current justices had at their nominations. If Sotomayor is confirmed, she will be the first Hispanic to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Obama said he had two requirements for a justice: The nominee had to have a "rigorous intellect" and a recognition of the limits of the judicial role. Those qualities alone were not enough, however, Obama said. He also wanted someone with a sense of compassion, an "understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live."

Obama referred to Sotomayor's childhood in a housing project and said she has never lost sight of where she began her life. During her life's journey she has "faced down barriers, overcome the odds," he said.

Sotomayor grew up in a Bronx housing project where her mother, a nurse, bought the only set of encyclopedias in the neighborhood, according to a profile published earlier this month in the New York Times. Her father died when she was 9.

Sotomayor acknowledged her mother, who was sitting in the audience as her nomination was announced. "My mother has devoted her life to my brother and me," she said. "I have often said that I am all I am because of her, and I am only half the woman she is."

Sotomayor said her heart is "bursting with gratitude" and she won't forget the lessons of her upbringing. "I strive never to forget the real-world consequences of my decisions," she said.

At the same time, Sotomayor acknowledged the importance of constitutional principles as envisioned by the founding fathers. “I find endless challenge in the complexities of the law," she said. "I firmly believe in the rule of law as the foundation for all our basic rights.”

Obama referred to Sotomayor's childhood ambition, fueled by Nancy Drew mysteries, to be a detective. She abandoned that plan when she learned she had diabetes and was advised the disease could make detective work unrealistic. She later became a fan of Perry Mason and wanted to become a lawyer.

Sotomayor has previously said she was so intimidated during her college days at Princeton that she didn’t volunteer in her first year in class. She later attended Yale Law School.

“I have spent my years since Princeton, while at law school and in my various professional jobs, not feeling completely a part of the worlds I inhabit,” she said in one speech. “I am always looking over my shoulder wondering if I measure up.”

Another story in the New York Times highlights another Sotomayor speech in which she said the ethnicity and sex of a judge “may and will make a difference in our judging.”

“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,” said Sotomayor, who is of Puerto Rican descent.

Sotomayor began her career as a prosecutor working for Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, the New York Daily News reports. She divorced in 1983; the couple had no children.

She was appointed to the federal trial court in Manhattan by the first President Bush and appointed to the 2nd Circuit by President Clinton.

Some of Sotomayor’s best-known decisions include:

• As a trial judge, Sotomayor ended a baseball strike in 1995 by ruling baseball owners were trying to subvert the labor system. Obama referred to the decision in announcing the nomination.

• Sotomayor voted with an appeals panel rejecting a challenge by white firefighters who sued after the fire department threw out a promotions test that produced no minority candidates. The case is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

ABA President H. Thomas Wells announced that the Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary has begun its peer review of Sotomayor, in which hundreds of lawyers, judges and others who know Sotomayor will be interviewed by committee members.

"Those interviewed will be asked to assess Judge Sotomayor on three key criteria: integrity, professional competence and judicial temperament," Wells said.

Also, two panels of law professors and one panel of appellate lawyers will examine Sotomayor's writings, and Sotomayor herself will be interviewed by the committee, which will then ultimately come up with a majority rating of either "well-qualified," "qualified" or "not qualified."

The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times has a transcript of comments by Obama and Sotomayor at this morning's press conference.

Updated at 5:18 p.m. to include information from Wells' statement.

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