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The First Day Of The Rest Of Her Life

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Welcome, Madame Justice Sonia Sotomayor, to one of the most exclusive clubs in America. Despite the fact that the nation is awash in female lawyers, you are just the third woman to join the United States Supreme Court. I am quite sure that your presence there will be a great pleasure to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who alone has been holding the fort for the gender since the departure of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman Justice and one of its most popular ever.

Take a look to your left. Now take a look to your right. The eight other people with whom you are about to go to work include some of the smartest people you are ever going to meet in the law. Hope you like working with them, and hanging out with them, because barring a catastrophe you will likely spend decades working alongside many of them. You will, in other words, grow old with these people in a sort of special retirement home where you get to wear robes a few dozen times a year and get to leave on long summer breaks.

It's a great honor, indeed, as you know, to become a Supreme Court justice. But don't think that it's all beer and Skittles, either (I'm assuming here that you know what beer and skittles are since you grew up like most of the rest of us). Sure, the hours are short, you never have to worry about getting fired, and everyone always rises when you walk into a room. But, within the next five years, even as you are just settling in to this challenging new enterprise, you will be confronted with stark choices on some of the most controversial issues of our time.

You will almost certainly have to rule on major terrorism issues, from the rights of detainees to the scope of the government's power to rely upon the "state secrets" to doctrine to thwart litigation. You probably will have to deal with affirmative action and global warming—and, yes, the court you are about to join is quite likely to reverse your controversial ruling against white firefighters in Connecticut. The justices, it turns out, didn't think much of your decision to back the City of New Haven in its effort to help promote black firefighters over white ones.

Big oil companies will continue to fight for their right to pollute. Pharmaceutical companies will fight against health care regulation. And as more and more states recognize same-sex marriage you may even have to vote as a relative newbie on whether there is a federal constitutional right to the same. You will have to render decisions on these vital issues, not to mention the life-and-death cases that crop up in the Court's capital punishment jurisprudence.

You are President Barack Obama's first choice, the 111th Supreme Court Justice in all, and the second Hispanic on the Court only if you count Justice Benjamin Cardozo, which most people don't. The president will almost certainly get the opportunity to nominate one or two other people to fill other positions at the Court but you will always be first—and everyone remembers their first justice! Well, everyone but Jimmy Carter, that is. He didn't last long enough to appoint even a single justice so he had to go out and win a Nobel Peace Prize to achieve some sort of lasting legacy.

The last president to appoint only a single justice to the Supreme Court was Gerald Ford and that's because he only served for a few years after Richard Nixon resigned. Who did Ford pick? Justice John Paul Stevens, who 34 years later is still there at Club Justice! He's the guy with the bow-tie, incidentally, who is straight out of central-casting for the role of Grandpa. Justice Stevens, incidentally, pulled a "Souter" before there was a "Souter" to pull—Stevens was a disappointment to conservatives and a godsend to liberals and progressives within a decade of reaching the High Court.

The man you replace, David H. Souter, earned scorn from the right. Will you, too, disappoint your current supporters? I hope so. I cringe at the idea that you, or any other judge, would be so doctrinal so as to appease a particular constituency with virtually every single vote. Don't just do well in your new job, in other words, try to do good, too. That's not "judicial activism," whatever that means. It's not even "empathy," as the president might define it. It's just a reminder, a plea really, to continue to be a decent human being even as you exercise the immense power you now possess.

For you now it's all about preparing for your confirmation hearing which will take place before the summer is out. Don't worry, it won't be as hard a test as the bar examination. Half the time, the Senators on the Judiciary Committee are doing crossword puzzles or making statements in lieu of questions. And if you ever get in trouble you can always say: "Senator, I don't feel comfortable answering that question because it goes to an issue that may come before me as a justice." The beauty of this answer is that you can use it over and over again, even if the staff on the Committee is pressing you about a lunch order.

Then after all the noise—sound and fury signifying nothing—you'll get sworn in. That's when you get to start reading briefs - or your law clerks' summary of briefs—and immersing yourself in the intricacies of Court dynamics. You've reached the top. What you do up there is up to you, your conscience, and fate.



(CBS)
Andrew Cohen is CBS News' Chief Legal Analyst and Legal Editor. CourtWatch is his new blog with analysis and commentary on breaking legal news and events. For columns on legal issues before the beginning of this blog, click here. You can also follow him on Twitter.