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A Political Matter

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I don't know if President Obama wrote out his announcement statement in longhand, but as he introduced his choice of Judge Sotomayor for the Supreme Court, I could swear I heard the sound of a lot of "i"s being dotted and "t"s being crossed.

Diversity? Sure -- with an existing history of 108 men and two women, the nominee just about had to hail from the female side of the plate. And unless you count the late Justice Benjamin Cardozo -- born to a Portuguese Jewish family -- as "Hispanic," Judge Sotomayor would become the first nominee of either gender from that fastest-growing of demographic groups.

And while she follows a quarter-century long pattern of hailing from the federal appellate bench, Sotomayor does come with years of experience as a Federal trial court judge, as well as background as a prosecutor -- thus fulfilling Obama's pledge to bring to the Court judges with "real-life" experience.

There's another sense in which Judge Sotomayor fits a recent historical pattern: judges who make their biographies a centerpiece of their qualifications for the bench.

Curiously, given the strong objection from conservatives to Mr. Obama's call for "empathy" form a justice, it was the nomination of Clarence Thomas in 1991 where biography first became a front-and-center matter.

In his statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Thomas employed what his backers came to all "the Pinpoint Strategy,"--named after the small town in Georgia where he grew up. Thomas talked of life under segregation, being raised by a loving grandfather; and underlined his hard-scrabble life as evidence that he would be fair-minded and open to the claims of the less well-off. (Critics will point to his career on the bench as evidence that the Pinpoint Strategy did not offer a powerful clue as to his judicial philosophy).

Ruth Bader Ginsberg also made her biography a central point of her statement after being nominated, paying tribute to her mother, who struggled with cancer for years. President Clinton was so moved by her story that when Brit Hume asked Mr. Clinton a question about the vagaries of the selection process, the president angrily cut off the questioning.

Sotomayor's background as a child of modest means who grew up in public housing may wind up being a point raised by her opponents. Maybe, they may argue, her sympathy for the underdog led her to decide in an affirmative action case that New Haven, Conn., could deny promotions to every firefighter because no minority passed the promotion test. They will likely cite a 2002 speech she made that could be read as implying that minority women bring a special quality to their work that white men may lack.

The fundamental point, however, is that the emphasis on Sotomayor's background demonstrates that Supreme Court nominations are inevitably and fully a political matter.

Jeff Greenfield is a CBS News Senior Political Correspondent.