Evaluating Sotomayor

Posted May 26, 2009, at 7:37 p.m.

It is telling that Republican lawmakers a decade ago slowed down the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor to the federal appeals court because they worried she’d make a likely Supreme Court nominee. On Tuesday, President Obama did just that, setting off another round of debate about what makes a good Supreme Court justice. President Obama has set the right standard: intelligence, understanding that judges interpret, not make, laws, and an understanding of how ordinary people live.

Shortly after the president announced his choice of Ms. Sotomayor to replace David Souter, who announced his retirement earlier this month, the code words were already being uttered. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said that lawmakers will thoroughly examine her record to “ensure she understands that the role of a jurist in our democracy is to apply the law evenhandedly, despite their own feelings or personal or political preferences.”

Conservative judicial counsel Wendy Long called Ms. Sotomayor “a judicial activist of the first order who thinks … that one’s sex, race and ethnicity ought to affect the decisions one renders from the bench.”

Evenhandedness, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. It is clear that Ms. Sotomayor, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Puerto Rico and who grew up in a housing project in the Bronx before going on to Princeton and Yale, has a different view of the world than say Sen. McConnell or Chief Justice John Roberts. That is a good thing, as the nation’s highest court is strengthened by a diversity of views.

It is also strengthened by jurists with varied life experiences, especially those who can identify with workers, not just business owners, with taxpayers, not just government bureaucrats.

Standing next to President Obama at the White House, Ms. Sotomayor touched on all these criteria. “I firmly believe in the rule of law as the foundation for all of our basic rights,” she said. She added: “It would be a profound privilege for me to play a role in applying those principles to the questions and controversies we face today.”

Later, she said, “I strive never to forget the real-world consequences of my decisions on individuals, businesses, and government.”

Ms. Sotomayor, who has served 17 years on the federal bench, is liberal, according to her colleagues. But, she is not a predictable vote for liberal causes. In 2002, she voted against an abortion rights group, concluding that the government could favor an anti-abortion stance in prohibiting U.S. funds from going to international groups that perform or support abortions.

After working as a corporate lawyer, Ms. Sotomayor was nominated to the federal court by George H.W. Bush in 1991. President Bill Clinton sought to elevate her to the court of appeals in 1997. Republican senators stalled her nomination for a year, fearing she would make a good Supreme Court nominee for a Democratic president.

Senators should carefully review Ms. Sotomayor’s record, but there is no place for the stalling and posturing of a decade ago.

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