An unprecedented nomination by President Barack Obama has opened the gates for not only a woman, but a Nuyorican Latina to serve as the 111th Supreme Court Justice. As a daughter of Puerto Rican parents, Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s story from rags to riches and possibly to the highest court of the nation, has sparked pride across Latino communities and a heated debate about identity politics.
Introducing Judge Sotomayor in the East Room of the White House, President Barack Obama said, “Over a distinguished career that spans three decades, Judge Sotomayor has worked at almost every level of our judicial system, providing her with a depth of experience and a breadth of perspective that will be invaluable as a Supreme Court justice.”
Judge Sotomayor responded, “I strive never to forget the real world consequences of my decisions on individuals, businesses and government.”
From growing up in a public housing project near Yankee Stadium in the South Bronx to graduating from two of the nations most prestigious universities — Princeton and Yale — for some, Sotomayor has reinvigorated the idea that the American Dream is indeed alive and kicking.
“I think it speaks to what people can become in this country; regardless of where the family is from, they have opportunities in this country,” said Cesar Perales, president and general counsel of Latino Justice PRLDEF. “It has interesting historical grounds,” he added, “people that left Puerto Rico were the poorest of the poor that could not survive, and today are beginning to play important roles that actually affect the lives of the people in Puerto Rico.”
Yet statistics show that Sotomayor’s success story is a rarity amongst the Latino experience. Fast-forwarding 30 years from Sotomayor’s Yale graduation in 1979, and Latinos are still facing educational disparities. Comprising 25 percent of students in grades K-12, Latinos have the highest high school dropout rates and are half as likely to complete college as white undergraduates. Recent numbers from the National Center for Children in Poverty show that more than 60 percent of all Latino children live in low-income households.
While Sotomayor’s success against provides a model for Latino youth, it also underscores the ongoing struggle for racial equality. Angelo Falcón, co-founder and president of the National Institute for Latino Policy and assistant adjunct professor at Columbia University said Sotomayor is a product of “community struggles to open up those institutions.” He added, “Her struggle, her story of growing up in a housing project, all those things came about as a result of struggle — even the struggle for fair housing.”
Still awaiting confirmation from the U.S. Senate, Sotomayor would replace Justice David Souter who announced his retirement at the end of the court term. Appointed by President George H.W. Bush, Justice Souter firmly established himself among the court’s liberals. With a hard to characterize judicial record, Sotomayor seem to be right in line with her would-be predecessor.
As the first Latina Justice Sotomayor will make history, but will she leave a politically progressive mark on the court?
“I think that perhaps Obama missed an opportunity here,” said Marjorie Cohn, president of the National Lawyers Guild and a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law on May 29 on Democracy Now! “I’m thrilled that there will be the first Latina on the Supreme Court,” said Cohn, “but I really would have liked to have seen a real progressive counterweight to radical rightists on the court.”
“She basically, politically, maintains the status quo of the court,” said Falcón, who describes her as “pragmatic, centrist, with very moderate positions.”
The symbolism and importance of Sotomayor needs to serve as a way “motivate people to organize and continue to press as opposed to feeling comfortable that we have arrived,” said Falcón. “With all the hype you got to get defensive around something like this,” he said, “when you take an overall picture of the situation within the Latino community there’s a long way to go.”