Supreme Court Nominee Sonia Sotomayor is Obama’s American Dream

William A. Galston
Bill Galston
William A. Galston Ezra K. Zilkha Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

May 28, 2009

From a strictly political standpoint, the Obama administration must be more than satisfied with the early reaction to its nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to fill the seat of retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter. While Democrats are united and Hispanics are thrilled, most Republicans are treading cautiously.

The White House has pretty much cornered the market on the “American Dream” theme, which it used to great effect during the event announcing her selection. Truly an inspiring story: a widowed, hard-working immigrant mother who stressed the importance of education; an able young daughter who made the most of her opportunity to attend an academically rigorous Catholic school and distinguished herself at Princeton and Yale before embarking on a varied legal career as a public prosecutor, private litigator and judge.

With this choice, the president makes good on his pledge to select someone with a broad range of life experiences, capable of understanding the difficulties many average families face. And up to now, the administration has successfully portrayed the nominee as a mainstream moderate on the economic and social issues that came before her as a judge.

In nominating Sotomayor, Obama threw Republicans on the defensive. Those who oppose her must choose their words and tactics carefully so as not to antagonize further the nation’s fastest-growing demographic group, many of whom already resent what they see as conservative Republicans’ anti-immigrant rhetoric. Nor has it escaped notice that seven current Republican senators—Robert Bennett and Orrin Hatch (Utah), Thad Cochran (Mississippi), Judd Gregg (New Hampshire), Richard Lugar (Indiana), and Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe (Maine)—voted to confirm Sotomayor as an appellate judge a decade ago and will have a hard time justifying a change of heart today. 

Sotomayor’s nomination also elevates the president within his own coalition. Early on, Hispanics were quietly unhappy at not receiving what they considered to be their fair share of senior appointments. Later, they were growing restive as the administration delayed introducing, or even discussing, immigration reform legislation. Sotomayor’s nomination alters that dynamic. Xavier Becerra, the top-ranking Hispanic in the House, was quoted as saying that “This will inspire people who were hungry to see a reform of our broken immigration to stand behind the president on this issue and behind the decisions he makes.” To be sure, some pro-choice groups are not convinced that the nominee is four-square in support of their cause. But despite the paucity of her public record on this matter, it seems hard to believe that a Democratic administration could have blundered into choosing someone with inadequate pro-choice credentials.

None of this means that Sotomayor will necessarily have a smooth path to confirmation. The battle-lines are already being drawn. Based on a handful of injudicious statements, her adversaries will accuse her of judicial activism and identity politics. They will argue that, because the Supreme Court has overruled some of her decisions, she stands outside the mainstream. They will focus on the notorious New Haven firefighters’ case, in which, they claim, she and others cavalierly disregarded the merit-based claims of white candidates for promotion. And as senators on the Judiciary panel cross-examine her, they will look for evidence to sustain vague allegations that she lacks the intellect and the temperament to serve on the high court.

If Obama’s party sticks together, Sotomayor will be confirmed, regardless of what others do. The more imponderable question is whether anything will come to light during the vetting or hearing that raises the political price of supporting her. Barring that, it is Republicans who are more likely to be counting their losses and licking their wounds.