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Senate Confirms Sonia Sotomayor as First Hispanic on High Court

Sotomayor carefully navigated her confirmation hearings in July, revealing little about how she might rule in any area. But she is likely to pick up where Justice David Souter left off on workplace cases.

August 6, 2009
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Sonia Sotomayor became the first Hispanic to ascend to the Supreme Court when she was confirmed by the Senate, 68-31, on Thursday, August 6.

Most recently a judge on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, she will replace Justice David Souter, who retired this summer.

Souter was often part of the court minority on controversial employment law decisions such as the Lilly Ledbetter pay discrimination case two years ago and a suit this term involving white firefighters who were denied promotions in New Haven, Connecticut.

Sotomayor, 55, carefully navigated through her confirmation hearings in July, revealing little about how she might rule in any area. But she is likely to pick up where Souter left off on workplace cases, according to Kevin Shaughnessy, a partner at Baker Hostetler in Orlando, Florida.

“She’s going to take a more liberal viewpoint on employment issues,” Shaughnessy said. “I don’t see a sea change in the court’s employment law decision-making process. She’s essentially taking the place of a justice who would vote with the liberal bloc.”

In the firefighter case, Sotomayor participated in the three-judge panel that held that the city of New Haven could throw out the results of promotion tests because they would have elevated only white and Hispanic firefighters to the level of captain or lieutenant.

New Haven declined to certify the exams because of concerns that they were unfair to African-American candidates and could leave the city vulnerable to a lawsuit.

The Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, that New Haven could not discriminate against one group of workers—the white firefighters—to avoid discriminating against another: African-Americans.

The court held that the tests could be vitiated only if the city showed “a strong basis in evidence” that the exams were not job related or that another, less discriminatory test existed.

The case became a touchstone for critics of Sotomayor, who said during her hearings that she was following precedent. They said it was an example of the misguided emphasis that President Barack Obama put on the ability of judges to be empathetic to the plight of the disadvantaged.

“[E]mpathy is a fine quality,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a floor speech before the Sotomayor vote. “But in the courtroom, it’s only good if the judge has it for you. What if you’re the other guy?”

But Sotomayor advocates said that her background was a strength and would give her a unique perspective on the high court.

“These core American ideals—justice, equality and opportunity—are the very ideals that have made Judge Sotomayor’s own uniquely American journey possible,” Obama said after the Senate vote. “They’re ideals she’s fought for throughout her career, and the ideals the Senate has upheld today in breaking yet another barrier and moving us yet another step closer to a more perfect union.”

The daughter of parents who came to the United States from Puerto Rico during World War II, Sotomayor grew up in a housing project in the Bronx in New York City.

Sotomayor, whose father died when she was 9, credits her mother with motivating her to succeed through education. She earned an undergraduate degree from Princeton and a law degree from Yale.

Over the course of her legal career, she served as prosecutor, a corporate litigator, and a trial and appellate judge. She presided over the case involving the Major League Baseball strike in 1995.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said that Sotomayor’s cultural and professional background will benefit the Supreme Court.

“She’ll share the depth and breadth of that experience with her colleagues,” Reid said in a floor speech. “A more diverse Supreme Court is a better Supreme Court.”

But until one of the five justices who tend to vote in the majority leaves the bench, controversial employment cases are likely to be decided 5-4. The swing vote often belongs to Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the firefighter decision this year.

“Kennedy seems to relish that role,” said Peter Mina, an associate at Tully Rinckey in Washington.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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