Salinas: Judicial election makes history and inspires people

For anyone who thought we were short on national role models, President Barack Obama just handed us one on a silver platter. By nominating Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, the president did a lot more than replace an outgoing magistrate with one he believes will best serve our country. Obama once again made history, and with a single decision he empowered millions of Americans who strive to live the American Dream.

Sotomayor will go through the same excruciating process that all other judicial nominees have gone through. The critics are already out in full force. She has been called a reverse racist, an intellectual lightweight, and she's had Rush Limbaugh, the alter ego of the Republican Party, say he hopes she fails. It is expected that Republicans will be forceful in their questioning of Sotomayor during her confirmation hearings. But few predict her demise. Unless there is some skeleton in her closet that would cast her in a negative light, she seems to be a shoo-in.

True, there is not a long record of major rulings by Sotomayor besides ending the baseball strike in 1995, and her critics are meticulously dissecting her comments in past rulings and speeches. But what makes Sotomayor uniquely qualified to be a Supreme Court justice, according to Obama and several national organizations that have come out in her support, is (1) her experience, and (2) her compelling life story.

Born in New York of Puerto Rican parents, the self-proclaimed "Nuyorican" has worked at almost every level of the judicial system in her three-decades-long career. She has been an attorney, a prosecutor, a corporate legal counsel. She was named to the federal bench by President George Bush senior, then elevated to the appeals court by President Clinton. She has been vetted by both parties and has survived the scrutiny of confirmation hearings twice.

But her professional accomplishments are all the more noteworthy given the circumstances of her life: Her humble upbringing in the projects of the Bronx, being raised by a single mom after losing her father at 9, being diagnosed with diabetes at only 8. Her childhood dreams, her passion for books, her academic abilities, her strength, her compassion, her courage and what has been described by many who have worked with her as her keen sense of justice.

Much has been said about Sotomayor's ethnicity and gender. She is the first Hispanic to be nominated to the Supreme Court, which, if confirmed, would make her the highest-ranking Latina in the country.

This is certainly reason for pride among women and Latinos. But this nomination is really about a lot more than that.

Sotomayor's nomination gives minority children the hope that there is no limit to what they can strive for. That it is possible to reach the highest level within their chosen profession, regardless of the color of their skin, the accent in their voice or their cultural heritage.

For working-class families, Sotomayor is living proof that growing up in the barrio is not an obstacle to achieving excellence, that hard work and perseverance can open doors to a better future.

Single mothers can look at Celina Sotomayor, the judge's mother, and know that a woman with a strong work ethic and solid family values can, on her own, raise two children in the worst financial conditions, yet be able to provide a well-rounded education for them and put them on a path to success.