Obama's Choice of Sotomayor Is a Political Balancing Act

Sotomayor could prove to be a tricky target for Republicans.

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After weeks of speculation, President Barack Obama has picked a new justice for the U.S. Supreme Court: federal appeals court Judge Sonia Sotomayor, a Democrat, who would be the first Hispanic and third woman to serve on the nation's highest court. If confirmed, Sotomayor will replace the retiring Justice David Souter.

Although Obama said this morning that he looked for justices who had both "rigorous intellect" and "an understanding that a judge's job is to interpret, not make law," he contended that those qualities are not enough. "We need something more," he said. "It is experience that can give a person a common touch, a sense of compassion; an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live."

Born to Puerto Rican parents, Sotomayor, 54, grew up in a housing project in the south Bronx. Her father died when she was 9, leaving her mother, a nurse, to raise her and her brother on modest means. But Sotomayor's career took her far beyond the shadow of Yankee Stadium. A graduate of Princeton and Yale Law School, she was chosen for the U.S. District Court of New York by former President George H. W. Bush, who also chose Souter for the Supreme Court. Since 1998, she has been on the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City, to which she was nominated by President Bill Clinton. "This wealth of experiences, personal and professional, have helped me appreciate the variety of perspectives that present themselves in every case that I hear," Sotomayor said in remarks this morning. "I strive never to forget the real-world consequences of my decisions on individuals, businesses, and government."

Along with her breadth of experience, having been nominated to her positions from both sides of the aisle helps make Sotomayor a politically savvy pick for the president, who has had to balance hopes that he would maintain the court's political balance and increase its diversity against his spoken commitment to bipartisanship. In many ways, Sotomayor does both. She could also prove to be a tricky target for Republicans, both because of the sensitivity of her gender and race and because the Republicans have seen their Hispanic vote slide dramatically, from George W. Bush's 44 percent in 2004 to John McCain's 31 percent in 2008.

Even so, conservative groups came out strongly against Sotomayor before Obama even made his announcement, calling her a liberal activist with her own agenda. One episode on which they focused was a controversial decision upholding the ruling of the city of New Haven, Conn., regarding a promotion exam for firefighters. That decision allowed the city to scrap the exam's results when no African-Americans qualified for promotions. The case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and a ruling is expected before the term's end.

The president arrived at his decision over Memorial Day weekend and made his announcement Tuesday morning. His shortlist included Judge Diane Wood of Chicago, Solicitor General Elena Kagan, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Sotomayor's nomination will now go to the Senate, which, being under Democratic control, seems likely to confirm her.