May 27, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor: Superbly Qualified

After the American Century

President Obama has named Sonia Sotomayor as his first nominee to the Supreme Court. It is a good choice. Many are saying it is a good choice because she is a woman, because she is Hispanic, because she is in favor of affirmative action, and because she has risen from humble origins, making her personally aware of the hardships faced by the poor in American society.

This is all well and good, but I applaud her nomination for a different reason: because she has the right credentials. Sonia Sotomayor is very bright. She went to Princeton on a scholarship and graduated summa cum laude. For those less familiar with the American education system, this means that she was at the absolute top of her class, receiving high grades in a wide range of subjects as part of a liberal arts education. Then she went to Yale law school, where she again excelled, becoming an editor of the law journal. Even to make law review at all would have been a great accomplishment, but to be selected as an editor means that she was judged to have the capacity to grasp a wide range of legal issues and to prod some large egos to work together. All of that bodes very well for a future Supreme Court justice.

In short, I am tired of hearing that someone will be good at a job because they are of a particular gender or social background. Relevant? Absolutely. The decisive factor? No. Want proof? Consider Clarence Thomas, an African American who rose from humble origins to become a mediocre justice (at best), appointed by George Bush, Senior. Or that pathetic female nominee, Harriet Miers, the evangelical Christian tort lawyer that George Bush Jr nominated but had to withdraw because even his own party could not stomach her. We need smart, hard-working justices, not party hacks who provide the illusion of diversity. Most of the issues that confront the Supreme Court are not about abortion or race, but about extremely complex legal problems, that have to be understood in terms of the continuing interpretation of the Constitution during the last 220 years. I want to see people who have exception talent and also worked exceptionally hard, and so graduated summa cum laude on the Court. Sonia Sotomayor is one of those rare people.

Just as importantly, Sonia Sotomayor has years of practical experience. She has worked in a district attorney's office, prosecuting cases of theft, murder, robbery, rape, and child pornography. She also has worked as a lawyer in private practice, and she knows a good deal about intellectual property law, which is a burgeoning area where many cases are likely, because digital technologies demand new interpretations of the legal tradition. Most importantly, she has been a Federal Judge, nominated first by that notorious radical George Bush Senior, and later promoted to her present position in at the United States Court of Appeals by Bill Clinton.

The Senate approved her elevation to this new position by a more than 2 to 1 majority, which in 1998 included many Republicans, notably Orrin Hatch, hardly a lefty or a liberal. Conceivably the Republicans will try to mount a challenge to this appointment, but Sonia Sotomayor probably is more intelligent than any of the people who will be questioning her at the confirmation hearings. If the Republicans want to get something out of this, they probably ought to celebrate the fact that Sonia Sotomayor entered the judiciary because a Republican president appointed her. The recent Republican project of self-destruction (by appealing to the rabid base and alienating moderates) may not be quite over yet, however.

However, it also seems likely that, unless some fantastic revelation comes out in the hearings, Sonia Sotomayor will soon be on the Supreme Court. She deserves to be there because of her excellent education and experience, and not merely because she is a woman or a member of a racial minority. And since she is 54, one could hope to see her on the bench for two decades.