Sonia Sotomayor is Right at Home in the Supreme Court

Fordham Law Film Festival in MyLatinoNews.com, January 24, 2011

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Posted on 24 January 2011 by oscar
From: Poder 360

Since the first hour of her first day as a Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor has seemed very much in her element. During the oral arguments that kicked off the Court’s term last year, Sotomayor was fully engaged, asking more questions than any of her colleagues, including the outspoken Antonin Scalia, the longest serving justice on the court.

The first Latina and third woman to serve on the highest court of the land thus had broken with tradition. Justices tend to be reserved when first appearing at the Court. Justice David H. Souter, who Sotomayor replaced, was very quiet during his first year and Justice Clarence Thomas has not spoken once during oral arguments in his last three years on the Court.

Whether it was the smart thing to do—or the wise Latina thing to do —was not the issue. Sotomayor, with 17 years of experience as a judge, 11 of them on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, simply seemed comfortable at a job she loves. The days of harsh criticism during her confirmation, when she was derided as a “reverse racist” and a member of the “Latino KKK,” are long gone.

But if Sotomayor has not been shy inside the Court, outside she has maintained a low profile. She has denied most interview requests and spoken publicly only a few times, including a commencement speech at Hostos Community College, a bilingual community college in the Bronx where her mother Celina received a nursing degree.

In October, she appeared at the Fordham Law Film Festival’s screening of Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, the movie she credits with inspiring her to pursue law. The event, which included an hour-long question-and-answer session with the justice from the Bronx, attracted hundreds of attendees, prompting the festival’s director to introduce her as a “kind of rock star.”

Relative to the other justices, Sotomayor probably does qualify for such a moniker. She is known to have a close friendship with Puerto Rican power couple Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony. Ricky Martin attended her investiture. She was even invited to throw a ceremonial first pitch at Yankee Stadium days before her debut in Washington, an honor that has yet to be bestowed on Scalia, another lifelong Yankees fan.

Back at the Court, Sotomayor has shown a formal, analytical style, as she did in the first decision she authored concerning an uncontroversial case over attorney-client privileges. Interestingly, in that decision Sotomayor set precedent by using the phrase “undocumented immigrant” instead of “illegal immigrant” for the first time in a court opinion.

In cases with a potentially ideological component, such as those related to gun rights or religious symbols in public spaces, Sotomayor has sided largely with the liberal wing of the conservative Court under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. According to the Washington Post’s Supreme Court reporter Robert Barns, Sotomayor has been “ideologically true to the president who appointed her,” voting with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg “more than any other colleague on the court.”

That has also meant that she has frequently been in the minority in fundamental cases such as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which rolled back decades-old limits on campaign spending by unions and corporations, and Berghuis v. Thompkins, which altered how Miranda rights are applied.

For a while some Court analysts had wondered whether Sotomayor’s experience as a former New York City prosecutor would make her more inclined toward a “conservative” position on crime. But in writing the dissent for Berghuis v. Thompkins, she displayed a clarity of thought above any propensity to favor prosecutors over criminal defendants.

The Court’s decision, she wrote, “turns Miranda upside down,” by relieving prosecutors from their previously understood burden to demonstrate that a suspect waived such rights unequivocally. “Criminal suspects must now unambiguously invoke their right to remain silent—which, counter intuitively, requires them to speak,” she added.

The only other former prosecutor on the bench, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr, had a reputation for a pro-prosecutorial bias as a judge, even before his confirmation to the Supreme Court in 2006. Several legal experts believe he has loyally maintained such a bias as a justice.

In her confirmation hearing Sotomayor was hard-pressed to ensure Republican senators that her personal experiences wouldn’t unduly influence her decisions on the Court. Perhaps her experience as a prosecutor hasn’t, but some have argued that growing up poor in the South Bronx has.

Beyond such speculations, one thing is certain: her gender, ethnicity and life experiences have added diversity to the Court—and that hasn’t hurt. zwill, hopefully, facilitate a sense of reconciliation and hope through the church.”