WASHINGTON-President Barack Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court on Tuesday, kicking off what is likely to be a Senate summer debate over judicial philosophy.
Sotomayor, a 54-year-old U.S. Appeals Court judge, would be the nation's first Hispanic justice if confirmed by the Senate.
Since Justice David Souter first announced his retirement several weeks ago, conservative groups have been firing warning shots claiming that Obama would pick a candidate who uses his or her own personal feelings in deciding cases. After Tuesday's announcement of Sotomayor, these groups said Obama didn't disappoint the left wing of the Democratic Party.
While announcing Sotomayor Tuesday at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Obama touched on the importance of respecting the rule of law when deciding cases-a trait that conservatives have stressed during the run up to this announcement. But he also highlighted Sotomayor's experiences, saying they give her the "common touch" and "sense of compassion" needed on the bench-comments that conservatives are sure to refer to when expressing their concern that Sotomayor will legislate from the bench using her own personal feelings.
In her brief White House remarks, an emotional Sotomayor also gave a nod to the rule of law before making a statement that conservatives said displays the kind of empathy that they believe threatens judicial impartiality: "I strive never to forgot the real world consequences of my decisions on individuals, businesses, and government."
Sotomayor critics have singled out her rejection of a New Haven, Conn., firefighters' lawsuit charging reverse discrimination. The firefighters sued when officials threw out the results of written promotion tests because no African-Americans qualified. The case, Ricci v. DeStefano, is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Wendy Long of the conservative Judicial Confirmation Network said Sotomayor sided with a city that used racially discriminatory practices in denying the promotions: "Judge Sotomayor is a liberal judicial activist of the first order who thinks her own personal political agenda is more important than 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."
In reaction to this case, fellow Judge Jose Cabranes, a President Clinton appointee, chastised Sotomayor for siding against the firefighters.
Groups like the Judicial Confirmation Network have argued that what Obama has often called "empathy" in his public remarks regarding his ideal justice flies in the face of the image of a blind judge impartially using the laws-not personal feelings-to hand down decisions.
In a 2002 speech that conservative groups wasted no time in highlighting soon after Obama's nomination, Sotomayor confirmed her belief that experiences should affect a judge's decisions: "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
Despite 17 years on the federal bench, Sotomayor does not have an extensive track record on abortion rulings. In her one abortion-related case as a court of appeals judge in 2002, she sided with pro-life groups. She did not agree with pro-abortion groups' arguments that President George W. Bush's policy of barring federal money to overseas organizations that support or perform abortions violated Constitutional rights.
"The Supreme Court has made clear that the government is free to favor the anti-abortion position over the pro-choice position, and can do so with public funds," Sotomayor wrote.
Obama's confirmation team is likely to use Sotomayor compelling personal story as the centerpiece of their confirmation pitch. Sotomayor, of Puerto Rican descent, rose from a Bronx, N.Y., housing project to graduate summa cum laude from Princeton University. In law school, she edited the Yale Law Journal. During Tuesday's White House ceremony, Sotomayor singled out her mother, tearfully sitting on the front row, who worked two jobs to support her family after Sotomayor's father died when she was 9 years old.
"I'm an ordinary person who has been blessed with extraordinary opportunities and experiences," Sotomayor said.
Obama also highlighted her legal resume that includes a stint in the Manhattan prosecutor's office. Obama said she had more experiences than anyone currently on the Supreme Court when they were fist nominated.
Beyond her rise from humble beginnings, Sotomayor's proponents have already stressed that she is a "bipartisan pick." President George H. W. Bush first nominated her to federal district court in 1991. But that pick was part of a deal in place at the time that allowed New York senators to name one out of every four district court nominees. President Bill Clinton nominated her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in 1998. During that confirmation process, 29 Republicans voted against Sotomayor.
Obama has said he would like for Sotomayor to be confirmed by the Senate in time for her to take a seat on the bench when the Supreme Court reconvenes in the fall. But Republican senators have stressed that they will not "rubber stamp" the nominee and that they will push for adequate time to debate her qualifications on the Senate floor.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R- Ky., said Republicans would treat Sotomayor fairly: "But we will thoroughly examine her record to ensure she understands that the role of a jurist in our democracy is to apply the law even-handedly, despite their own feelings or personal or political preferences."
But with a large Democratic majority in the Senate, many expect Sotomayor to be eventually confirmed.
With the left-leaning Souter retiring, Mathew D. Staver, president of Liberty Counsel and dean of the Liberty University School of Law, said Sotomayor's confirmation likely would not change the ideological makeup of the court.