Making History Was Just One Factor for Obama in Sotomayor Nomination

President Obama has announced Judge Sonia Sotomayor as his nominee for the Supreme Court. If confirmed, Judge Sotomayor would be the third woman to sit on the bench and the first Latino.
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 28, 2009

LAS VEGAS, May 27 -- President Obama's selection of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to become the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice places him beside Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan as presidents who broke demographic tradition with high court picks.

Obama, whose own election signaled an American first, is seeking to make history early in his presidency. Like those other presidents who swept aside ethnic, racial and gender barriers on the court, Obama invoked the need for real-world experience on the bench in choosing a former prosecutor who rose from public-housing poverty, and he continued to hit that theme during a two-day swing through the heavily Hispanic Southwest this week.

Obama held up Sotomayor's legal résumé and bootstraps narrative as a counterpoint to the "era of selfishness and greed" from which he told an audience Tuesday the country has just emerged but that has taken a toll. "Sonia Sotomayor's life," he said, "is proof that all things are possible."

"I think that America is a dynamic country that's evolving and changing all the time, from generation to generation," said David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama. "It's a healthy evolution, and I think we're pleased to be agent of that evolution. But that alone would not have been sufficient reason to pick this particular judge."

Just over four months into his presidency, the vacancy left by Justice David H. Souter's impending retirement offered Obama, a former law school lecturer, his first opportunity to influence the direction of the high court. Underscoring the confidence he has in his own popularity and communication skills, Obama decided on a highly experienced judge with a storybook biography who, nonetheless, was not the safest choice on his list.

Sotomayor's past remarks on the central role that the federal appeals court plays in policymaking and the influence that race and gender have on a judge's job have already been cited by the conservative groups gearing up to oppose her nomination.

But Obama expected the resistance, his advisers said, not only to Sotomayor but also to any of his final four candidates. Axelrod said that "this was not a judgment about who was easier to confirm and who was harder."

"As impressive and meaningful as Judge Sotomayor's sterling credentials in the law are, her extraordinary life journey is even more exceptional," Obama said in a fundraising speech at Caesars Palace.

Senior administration officials acknowledge that history loomed in the background of Obama's weeks-long selection process, which culminated with a choice that will leave his first mark on the court and a fast-growing Hispanic population that supported him by a wide margin in last year's election.

The Other Firsts

The previous firsts to the Supreme Court also came as periods of profound economic, social and demographic changes were transforming the nation. Like Sotomayor, Justices Louis Brandeis, Thurgood Marshall and Sandra Day O'Connor all reflected the broader shifts taking place.

In nominating Brandeis, the first Jew on the court, Wilson noted "his knowledge of modern economic conditions and of the way they bear upon the masses of the people."

Considered a brilliant public-advocacy lawyer when the U.S. industrial economy and financial system was taking shape, Brandeis came to the court in 1916 as an outsider. As a Jew, press accounts noted at the time, "his blood brought him early in his career in touch with men of his race exploited in sweat shops."

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