A Closer Look at Sonia Sotomayor

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Judge Sonia Sotomayor is President Obama's pick to be the next Supreme Court Justice. Her life story is compelling but what will she be like as a judge?

Supreme Court nominations have a history of being rough and tumble at times and it seems Sotomayor knows all about that.

Humble Beginnings

Growing up in a Puerto Rican family in the south Bronx of New York she's had a front row seat to hardship. Her father died when she was nine. She was raised by her hard-working single mom in the poor Bronxdale housing projects. She was also diagnosed with diabetes as a child, but found solace in books.  Her mom had the only encyclopedia set in the projects.

Education was extremely important to Sotomayor's mom, so she sent her to Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, about 15 minutes north of the projects.  It's a Roman Catholic high school complete with nuns and priests walking the halls, Mass in the morning and an opportunity for forgiveness of sin.

In the main school office there are signs of pride.  Sotomayor studied hard and made the most of her education. Jeri Faulkner went to school with her.

"She's the American dream," he said.  "Start small, work hard and success is yours."

At Cardinal Spellman, Sotomayor received a heavy dose of Catholic worship and religious teaching.

"You had to take religion.  That was part of the academic program as it still is today," said former classmate Bob Anderson.  "There were Masses at various times during the year. There were opportunities to receive the Sacrament of Penance so a very religious atmosphere."

"There was a strong religious presence. I use that in the technical sense," said Father Trevor Nicholls, president of Cardinal Spellman.  "There were brothers and sisters here and there were priests here in rather more numbers than there are now."

Empathy in Justice?

After Princeton and Yale Law School, Sotomayor went from prosecutor to corporate litigator  to judge in 30 years.

Being introduced as the first Hispanic woman Supreme Court nominee, this upcoming confirmation process will most likely center on empathy.  The president wants that quality in a judge.

"I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles, as an essential ingredient for arriving as just decisions and outcomes," Obama said.

Chief Justice John Roberts had a much different view of a judge's responsibilities during his confirmation hearing.

"I will remember that it's my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat," he said.

It is setting up a philosophical debate. What is the role of a judge?

"The president, in unusual fashion, has opened up a can of worms by suggesting that his nominee will display empathy for particular party litigants," said Manuel Miranda of the Third Branch Conference.  "We've come to believe that justice is blind."

Tom Goldstein has argued 21 cases before the Supreme Court.

"I think what Barack Obama was saying there is that he wants judges to understand really including from personal experience what the effect of their decisions is and so they're not cold and calculating, but understand that there is a human component to the law," he said.

"This is a very real and perhaps the first opportunity for America to have a genuine debate about the things that divide Democrats and Republicans and to have a light to shine upon the president and what he stands for," Miranda added.

The Issue of Hispanic Voters

But this is a popular president and nominating a Hispanic woman puts Republicans in a bind politically. The GOP has been losing Hispanic voters at an alarming rate since most took a hard line on immigration. But Miranda, who's also a fellow Hispanic, says the GOP shouldn't shrink away just because she's Hispanic.

"To not give Sonia Sotomayor full scrutiny would be an insult. It would ghettoize her as a Latino," he said.

At the center of the full scrutiny will be comments she made during a law conference, now circulating on YouTube.

"Court of appeals is where policy is made," Sotomayor said.  "And I know, I know that this is on tape, and I should never say that. Because we don't 'make law.' I know."

Conservatives say that type of talk is code for judicial activist and it's at the core of their argument against her.

"She is very comfortable in that elitist conversation that jokes about policy making from the bench so while it may not be the perfect smoking gun, it certainly is an insight into where her background truly lies," Miranda said.

Conservative radio icon Rush Limbaugh says it goes even deeper.

"She is about making policy from an extreme radical left wing position," he said.  Obama talks about we need people with empathy. This is not about empathy folks, this is just cover. He just wants one of own on the court to do his dirty work."

She'll definitely be under the microscope to explain the comments, but SCOTUS blogger Tom Goldstein thinks she can do so easily.

"Descriptively what she's saying there is that in courts of appeals where there's lots of ambiguities in the law that get resolved inevitably the judges are making policy on some level," he said.

Sotomayor on the Issues

So where is Sotomayor on some of the issues?

On the big one of abortion the jury is still out due to a lack of rulings in the area. pro-lifers don't trust her because they feel fairly cerrtain that obama wouldn't nominate someone who didn't fall in line with his views. white house press secretary robert gibbs hinted at that in the last week.

"he left very comfortable with her interpretation of the constitution being similar to that of his."

But pro-choicers are nervous because in the two abortion related cases she did rule on, she came down in favor of pro-lifers, though it wasn't on the merits as much as it was on legal precedent.

"You just don't have a track record that's sufficiently out of the box, liberal, ideological to cause real concern," Goldstein explained.

But there is one lurking intangible.

"This nomination could be derailed by the nominee herself," Miranda said.

He says the wild card during the hearing may be Sotomayor's temperament.

"The best comparison is to Robert Bork who presented himself in such a way, perhaps showing a certain amount of hubris, arrogance aggressiveness in the hearings themselves," Miranda said.  "I have a feeling that Sonia Sotomayor, from what I read, will not be the mild mannered John Roberts or Sam Alito that everyone came to love."

If, in the end, Sotomayor is seated on the Supreme Court, many have said that it will simply be replacing the liberal David Souter with another liberal-- No huge deal. But there will be ramifications.

"The replacement of an older liberal with a younger liberal may mean that some of the cases that Americans care about and might want to have reviewed and overturned they might not see that happening in their lifetime," Miranda said.

The stakes are high as Sotomayor gets ready for her ultimate close-up.

*Originally Published June 2, 2009

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