President Obama has laid out an ambitious domestic policy agenda, but his nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court may be one of the most important actions of his presidency.
Any nomination to the Supreme Court is big news. After all, the position is for life, and the current ideological composition of the court means the new justice will have an enduring impact on public policy.
The nomination of Sotomayor, however, is more remarkable than most. She would be only the third woman to serve on the Court and the first Latina. It’s a significant symbol of achievement for the growing Hispanic population and therefore a savvy political move by Democrats, who have all but dared Republicans to attack her and are eager to lash out with claims of racism and sexism.
The media has mostly focused on Sotomayor's personal story. There is no doubt, Sotomayor’s rags-to-riches story of a young girl from public housing in the South Bronx who worked her way through Princeton and Yale Law School is undeniably commendable.
But the real question is whether she is among the most qualified individuals to replace retiring Justice David Souter. Sotomayor has drawn criticism from both the left and the right, suggesting that she may not have been the strongest candidate and that instead identity politics was a primary driver of Obama’s choice.
Law professors, former clerks, even respected left-leaning news outlets have all expressed concerns that Sotomayor is not the intellectual heavyweight they hoped Obama would have selected. What she has in legal experience – as a trial judge, appellate judge, and commercial litigator – she seems to lack in scholarly talent. While the left has not criticized Sotomayor’s decisions per se, they have acknowledged that it is unlikely she would serve as a vibrant liberal voice or be capable of building bipartisan coalitions.
And while the President and Sotomayor emphasized the importance of “empathy,” critics have acknowledged she can be a bully on the bench – a personality trait that makes many potential supporters concerned about her potential effectiveness as a justice, which tends to be a product of both intellectual prowess and personal charm.
Critics on the right are less concerned with Sotomayor’s temperament than they are with her apparent disregard for the text and intent of the Constitution and even Supreme Court precedent. While Obama stressed the importance of upholding the law and being empathetic, as a Justice one often cannot have it both ways.