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Obama Picks Hispanic Woman For Supreme Court


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene in for Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The president who nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court is placing heavy emphasis on her life story. The Republicans who will question her want time to focus on her judicial record. We'll get an early look at both subjects in this part of the program.

GREENE: Sonia Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic justice. And in a moment, we'll visit the housing project where she grew up in New York. We begin though with NPR's Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG: For literally years, Sonia Sotomayor has been a frontrunner for a Supreme Court vacancy if one should occur in a Democratic administration. Indeed, she was on Barack Obama's shortlist before the inauguration. And yesterday, the president made it official.

President BARACK OBAMA: What Sonia will bring to the court then is not only the knowledge and experience acquired over a course of a brilliant legal career but the wisdom accumulated from an inspiring life's journey.

TOTENBERG: Sonia Sotomayor, born to Puerto Rican parents, was raised in the housing projects of the South Bronx. Adversity struck at young age. She was diagnosed with diabetes. And when she was nine, her father died. With her mother working two jobs, Sonia went to Catholic schools then Princeton where she graduated summa cum laude, then onto Yale where she served as an editor on the prestigious Law Journal.

In her first job out of law school, she was a prosecutor for five years in the Manhattan DA's office. From there, she went to a fancy private firm litigating on behalf of international corporations. When she was 38, the first President Bush named her to the federal trial court at the recommendation of Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. She won unanimous Senate conformation and early on became known as the judge who saved baseball after she ruled against the baseball owners, a decision that ultimately led to the end of the baseball strike.

In 1997, President Clinton named her to the appeals court. But this time, Republicans blocked her nomination for a year fearing she might be a contender for the Supreme Court. They were right. Yesterday at the White House, Sotomayor dressed in a simple black suit, chartreuse blouse and no jewelry was all-New York, all-loving daughter as she looked at her weeping mother in the front row and all-professional lawyer.

Judge SONIA SOTOMAYOR (Supreme Court Nominee): I firmly believe in the rule of law as the foundation for all of our basic rights. For as long as I can remember, I have been inspired by the achievement of our Founding Fathers. They set forth principles that have endured for more than two centuries.

TOTENBERG: The inspiring Sotomayor story and the growing number of Hispanic voters in the country may give Republicans pause about opposing the nomination. But for weeks, conservative groups have been gearing up to oppose any of the names widely mentioned as possible nominees. Yesterday, those groups immediately leaped into action. Here, for example, is Wendy Long, a former law clerk for Justice Clarence Thomas and now counsel for the Judicial Conformation Network.

Ms. WENDY LONG (Judicial Confirmation Network): I think she is pretty clearly a liberal judicial activist who sees her role as a judge as one where she can use her own political agenda and her feelings and values, and to bring those to bear upon judicial cases.

TOTENBERG: But judges who served with Sotomayor on the appeals court -Republican and Democratic appointees alike - disputed that characterization. Judge Roger Miner, a Reagan appointee, calls Sotomayor an excellent choice.

Judge ROGER MINER (2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals): I don't think I'd go as far as to classify her in one camp or another. I think she just deserves the classification of outstanding judge.

TOTENBERG: Former chief judge, Jon Newman, a Carter appointee, calls her a brilliant lawyer and a fair-minded pragmatist.

Judge JON NEWMAN (2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals): She is everything one would want in a first-rate judge.

TOTENBERG: And John Walker, appointed by the first President Bush, calls Sotomayor an independent thinker.

Judge JOHN WALKER (2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals): While her views are liberal, I don't consider her to be an ideological judge or an activist judge pushing a political agenda.

TOTENBERG: Few on the right and left have actually read most of Sotomayor's legal opinions at this point. But Supreme Court advocate, Tom Goldstein, founder of the leading Supreme Court blog has.

Mr. TOM GOLDSTEIN (Founder, SCOTUSblog): It's very hard to see what in her decisions conservatives will grab hold of - hold up to Americans and say, look, you have here someone who is going to be out of control, is going to be an ideologue who is a liberal activist. For that, they kind of have to look at individual lines in her speeches and try and make something out of them.

TOTENBERG: And those lines are there. In the coming weeks, conservatives will try to demonstrate that those hints are evidence of judicial activism lurking in the shadows and waiting to be unleashed.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.