Latina could change face of highest court

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama hopes to put his lasting imprint on the Supreme Court with his choice of Sonia Sotomayor, but she may be remembered as much for who she is as for what she does.

Her liberal record on the appeals bench will generate a summer-long clash of ideologies in Washington and a high-decibel battle on cable TV and talk radio, but her ideology isn't likely to shift the court much.

If the Democratic-controlled Senate confirms her, as it's widely expected to, she'll replace retiring Justice David Souter, a moderate vote.

Her identity would have a more immediate impact.

Sotomayor would be the first Latina to serve on the court, a working-class kid from the Bronx whose widowed mother — who choked up watching the president nominate her daughter Tuesday at the White House — toiled to send Sotomayor to inner-city Roman Catholic schools.

Obama said her identity and life story gave Sotomayor, a Princeton and Yale Law School graduate, the empathy atop her intellect and judicial experience that made her his top choice.

"It is experience that can give a person a common touch and a sense of compassion, an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live," Obama said in the East Room ceremony.

After meeting with Sotomayor for an hour last Thursday at the White House, the president called her Monday evening with the news. He then called the others he'd met with: Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and federal Judge Diane P. Wood.

Presidential aides said Sotomayor has more experience than any nominee in a century.

Sotomayor, 54, called it "the most humbling experience of my life."

However, she wouldn't likely change the court's balance. Obama may not get a chance to do that for some time.

The two oldest members of the court are liberal or left-of-center votes: John Paul Stevens, 89, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who's 76 and recovering from cancer. The oldest conservative on the court is Antonin Scalia, 73.

"With eight men, one woman and no Hispanics currently sitting on the court, President Obama listened to voices like former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in recognizing that diversity on the bench is essential," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

Hispanics are slowly but steadily making up a greater part of the vote: 5 percent in 1995, 7 percent in 2000, 8 percent in 2004 and 9 percent in 2008. They are solidly Democratic, giving the Democratic presidential nominees a majority of their votes in the past four elections.

Those political implications will underscore this summer's confirmation hearings.

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