Friday, August 7, 2009
AT 3:15 P.M. Thursday, Aug. 6, the nation witnessed the confirmation of its first Hispanic justice to the Supreme Court. By a vote of 68 to 31, Sonia Maria Sotomayor, daughter of the Bronx and Puerto Rico, became the 111th person and only the third woman to join the highest court in the land.
The vote brought with it several other firsts: the first time in some four decades of service on Capitol Hill that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) was unable to cast a vote on a Supreme Court nomination; the first time in their three decades of judging nominees that Republican Sens. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah) and Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) felt compelled to vote no; the first time in its 138-year history that the National Rifle Association will factor the vote on a Supreme Court nominee in its annual report card on lawmakers and gun rights.
The moment will be remembered above all as a triumph for Justice Sotomayor, who refused to let financially humble beginnings define or restrict her in any way. She comes to the high court with as well-rounded a résumé as any justice of the past century: Princeton undergrad, Yale Law, prosecutor, corporate litigator, trial court judge and appeals court jurist. The American Bar Association bestowed on her a unanimous well-qualified rating.
Yet 31 Republicans could not bring themselves to vote for her. Some criticized her vote against white firefighters in a reverse-discrimination case. Others were concerned about her decision against two New York state property owners whose land was seized by a township and handed over to a private developer intent on building a shopping center. Others worried that she was not sympathetic enough to the rights of gun owners.
These senators were within their rights to dislike the outcomes, but they were wrong to overlook the fact that in each of these cases Judge Sotomayor either followed settled law or appropriately exercised judgment that was well within the mainstream. And still there is the lingering question, fairly asked of everyone poised to ascend those marble steps: What kind of justice will she be now that the burdens of precedent are no longer absolute? The answer will be revealed only in time. We would hope that any justice would come to the bench free of personal prejudice or agenda; we would also hope that she would follow the law faithfully even while understanding that she will often be called on to exercise judgment to ensure that cramped interpretations don't defy common sense and crowd out justice.
Judge Sotomayor has done this for the past 17 years. We trust that Justice Sotomayor will continue to follow this humble and honorable path.