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Hispanics See Stars Aligned on High Court

Sonia Sotomayor
Sonia Sotomayor (2003 Photo Courtesy Of Pace University)
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It is unclear whether Obama has a relationship with her or knowledge about her jurisprudence. But she already has felt the glare that comes with being identified as a front-runner, with several unflattering profiles about her temperament and judicial accomplishments.

The Latino groups yesterday defended Sotomayor against what one called stories "assailing" her character.

"We are talking here about a woman who graduated from Princeton summa cum laude, went to Yale Law School, is an outstanding scholar," said Ramona Romero, president of the Hispanic National Bar Association. "We don't believe Judge Sotomayor requires any defense; we believe her record speaks for itself. We think she's one -- and I want to emphasize, one of many -- excellent candidates."

But the groups yesterday went out of their way to give the White House a wide berth, saying the philosophy and jurisprudence of the nominee matter most.

"It's not solely the mission of Hispanics for a Fair Judiciary that the next nominee be of Hispanic descent," said Estuardo Rodriguez, a founding member of the group. Foremost, he said, is whether someone who has "the understanding that civil rights is a given right."

"Would there be a disappointment in the community" if Obama does not choose a Hispanic, asked Gabriela Lemus of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda. "I would say so."

But she added: "We're politically mature enough to know there's going to be another chance."

Romero disputed the notion that Obama might not enjoy the luxury of a wide array of Hispanics qualified for the job. "If this argument ever had any merit, it does not any longer," she said.

The groups said there was a list of 82 Hispanic judges on the federal bench and state courts of last resort that the president could draw from if choosing from the traditional venues for a nominee -- all of the justices on the current court are former federal appeals judges.

But the pool is shallower than that. The list produced by the groups yesterday is bipartisan, and because it has been eight years since a Democratic president appointed judges, the appellate bench is also thin for potential Democratic nominees.

Of the seven Hispanic appeals court judges appointed by Democrats, only Sotomayor and Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw of the 9th Circuit in California are younger than 60. There are only 15 Hispanics at the district court level appointed by Democratic presidents, compared with 33 appointed by Republicans.

Judge Ruben Castillo of the Northern District of Illinois, a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, is also mentioned as a possibility. New York's Democratic senators, Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, sent Obama a letter recommending either Sotomayor or Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the former senator from Colorado. Salazar would be a wild card who would change the makeup of the court by adding an experienced politician to the mix. Administration officials say other names that have not been mentioned publicly are also on their list.

Sotomayor, with a compelling life story of growing up poor in public housing in the Bronx, has long been thought to be a front-runner for the job. Former Yale classmates, law firm colleagues and former clerks say she is the embodiment of the characteristics Obama has said he is looking for: a qualified nominee with legal and real-world experience, as well as an appreciation for the impact of court decisions on everyday life.

But detractors have said she can be short-tempered and tough on the bench.

The remarks about Sotomayor in the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary, where lawyers are quoted without name, are tougher than those about two other appeals court judges who are mentioned among those Obama might consider for the job, Diane P. Wood and Ann C. Williams of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, and some who are advising Obama on the choice say the perception that she does not work well with others is one Sotomayor would have to overcome.

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