Sotomayor was seen as the leading candidate throughout the process to replace Justice David Souter, both for her judicial experience and because she would make history by adding to the diversity of the court, long dominated by white men.
In choosing Sotomayor as his first Supreme Court nominee, Obama is choosing a judge with a compelling up-by-her-bootstraps personal narrative who could embody the kind of common touch the president has said he is eager to have reflected on the court.
If confirmed, Sotomayor, 54, would also be the first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court, giving Obama a political boost with a constituency which has chafed somewhat at the president’s slow pace on immigration reform.
She would join Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the nine-member panel and become only the third woman among 111 justices in the court's history.
Liberal activists have signaled that they are unlikely to oppose Sotomayor, though some favored more of an ideological firebrand given Obama’s strong political position and the large majority Democrats enjoy in the Senate. One seed for suspicion among some liberals is that Sotomayor was first nominated as a federal district court judge by President George H.W. Bush, in 1992.
But conservatives, who have said they’re spoiling for a fight over Obama’s picks, wasted no time weighing in against Sotomayor.
"Judge Sotomayor is a liberal judicial activist of the first order who thinks her own personal political agenda is more important that the law as written. She thinks that judges should dictate policy, and that one's sex, race, and ethnicity ought to affect the decisions one renders from the bench,” said Wendy Long of the conservative Judicial Confirmation Network, signaling an early line of conservative attack against Sotomayor.
However, the fact that Sotomayor is a Latina could also present a political challenge for Republicans. Senators from the GOP, which has suffered from an internal rift over immigration issues and problem-plagued efforts to reach out to Hispanics, will have to decide how directly and sharply they want to attack a Latina single mother whose confirmation to the court is virtually certain.
Obama has said he wants a justice with “empathy” who understands the problems of everyday people. Sotomayor was born in the Bronx and was raised in a public housing project by a single mother. She attended Princeton as an undergraduate and got her law degree from Yale. She worked as a prosecutor in the office of Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau before entering private practice.
Sotomayor was named to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in 1997 by President Bill Clinton.
Sotomayor’s nomination is likely to draw attention to the divisive issue of affirmative action, due to a ruling she joined last year against against white New Haven firefighters who complained that their rights were violated on a promotion test that was withdrawn after African-American candidates did poorly on it. The case caused a bitter divide among 2nd Circuit judges and is set to be argued before the Supreme Court this term.
Obama’s decision to pick a nominee who bring affirmative action to the fore is a curious one since he has raised questions about the practice, at least in some cases.
When Sotomayor’s named was widely floated in recently weeks as one of the leading contenders for the court, some legal commentators opined that her opinions did not have great intellectual heft and that she was unlikely to fulfill the role of a judicial powerhouse who could win over moderate judges by the weight of her argument. Many of the critics were anonymous lawyers who had handled cases before her.
However, a groupof former clerk and other attorneys quickly rose to her defense, saying that she is a top-caliber jurist.
Some scholars contend that the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court was actually Justice Benjamin Cardozo, whose served on the court from 1932 to 1938 after being nominated by President Herbert Hoover.