Obama nominates first Hispanic to the Supreme Court.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
May 27 2009 6:55 AM

SCOTUS Nominee Stumps GOP

The New York Timesand Los Angeles Timesbanner, while everyone else leads with, President Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. The LAT easilywins the headline-of-the-day award by connecting Sotomayor's nomination to the day's other big news—California's Supreme Court upholding the ban on marriage for same-sex couples—with the banner headline: "A Latina in the Middle." By nominating the 54-year-old New Yorker, Obama is "aiming to make good on his promise to bring 'empathy' to the court by naming a liberal with a compelling life story who would be its first Hispanic justice," notes the Wall Street Journal. Obama made a point of emphasizing Sotomayor's "extraordinary journey" from a Bronx housing project to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. "I have decided to nominate an inspiring woman who I believe will make a great justice," Obama said. The LAT points out that while she hasn't issued any significant rulings on hot-button issues like gay rights and abortion, "her narrowly written opinions resembled those of the justice she would replace, David H. Souter."

Obama's nomination "paves the way for a heated summer debate on the role her gender, Hispanic roots and working-class Bronx background should play in her rulings," notes USA Today. But how much of a debate will there actually be? No one expects too many fireworks. The NYT says the "White House appeared eager to dare Republicans to stand against a history-making nomination." Indeed, Republicans seem to still be trying to decide how much they'll push back against Sotomayor, knowing full well that an "all-out assault … could alienate both Latino and women voters" while at the same time "sidestepping a court battle could be deflating to the party's base and hurt efforts to rally conservatives going forward," points out the Washington Post.

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Sotomayor, who would be the third woman on the country's highest court and the nation's 111th justice undoubtedly has an impressive résumé. She is a graduate of Princeton and Yale, went on to serve as a prosecutor, and then became a partner at a New York law firm before she was nominated by George H.W. Bush in 1992 to become a judge. Besides her professional experience, though, it is undeniable that her "up-by-the-bootstraps tale, an only-in-America story that in many ways mirrors Mr. Obama's own" is one of the reasons why she was selected, notes the NYTin a separate front-page piece.

While Republicans in the Senate mostly  remained silent while vowing to closely examine her record, conservatives were ready with some attack lines, tagging her as a judicial activist. Conservatives focused on a speech where Sotomayor said a "court of appeals is where policy is made" and another where she said that "our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging. … I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." In a front-page look at Sotomayor's story, the Post says that her life has "been heavily sculpted, if not fully defined, by her ethnicity."

Conservatives also focused on her support for affirmative action, particularly what appears to be her most controversial decision, in which she ruled against a group of white firefighters who said they faced discrimination after tests that were supposed to be used to decide promotions were later thrown out after no blacks qualified. Sotomayor was part of a three-judge panel that issued a two-paragraph, unsigned opinion dismissing the suit. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and if the justices decide to overrule the decision, it could be an embarrassment before confirmation hearings. But the White House pushed back, saying that the unsigned decision was an example of Sotomayor following precedent, and, besides, officials seem confident that it would be difficult for opponents to turn two paragraphs into a major controversy.

Rush Limbaugh called her a "reverse racist," but her nomination "brought a surprisingly muted response from the Republican senators who will actually vote on it," notes the LAT. "The senators seemed to be taking their cues from quieter voices within the party who cautioned that opposing the country's first Latino Supreme Court nominee would amount to political suicide."

Some legal experts, including one of her colleagues, were quick to say that Sotomayor can best be described as a moderate liberal. "On the modern court, she's on the center left, pretty much right in line with Justice Souter," one lawyer who frequently argues in front of the Supreme Court tells the LAT. "Back in the day of the Warren court, she certainly would have been regarded as a moderate."

For those interested in the process, the NYT reports that Sotomayor spent seven hours at the White House last Thursday. By Friday, Obama said he was leaning toward selecting her but said he would take the weekend to think about it. The Post has the most detail about the White House plan for what "they hope will be a 72-day campaign to confirm Sotomayor by Aug. 7," when the Senate will go on a monthlong recess. "We have to keep control of the narrative, to make sure that her story doesn't get told by someone else," one senior official said. The plan is to have Sen. Chuck Schumer introduce her to his colleagues, and she will "then disappear" until confirmation hearings begin.

In a front-page analysis, the NYT's Adam Liptak says Sotomayor's "opinions are marked by diligence, depth and unflashy competence." Her decisions "are usually models of modern judicial craftsmanship," but "they reveal no larger vision, seldom appeal to history and consistently avoid quotable language." The WP says that on controversial issues, "Sotomayor has been difficult to categorize ideologically, with some rulings that have pleased conservatives and others liberals." Liptak adds that her penchant for "technical, incremental and exhaustive" decisions "makes her remarkably cursory treatment" of the firefighters case—Ricci v. DeStefano—"so baffling." This is why that one case will probably attract more attention than any other during confirmation hearings. Slate's Emily Bazelon writes that "Sotomayor punted when Ricci came before her, to such a degree that she raised more questions than she answered." (See Slate's complete coverage on Sotomayor here.)

The NYT talks to some conservatives who say the big issue will be how she might rule on a same-sex marriage case. "Abortion is in some sense a stale issue that has been fought over many times, but gay marriage is very much up for grabs," said the executive director of the Committee for Justice. "Gay marriage will be bigger than abortion."

Same-sex marriage was certainly the topic of the day in California, where, as was widely expected, the state's Supreme Court upheld the ban on same-sex marriage that voters approved when they backed Proposition 8. At the same time, the court ruled that the marriages of approximately 18,000 same-sex couples who tied the knot before the November election are still valid. The justices also emphasized that same-sex couples would continue to have the right to enter into "committed, officially recognized and protected family relationships" under the state's domestic partnership law. The LAT points out that certain parts of the ruling "read as a lament over the ease with which the California Constitution can be amended."

Within a few hours of the California Supreme Court decision, activists on both sides of the issue were already staking out their battle plans for their next fight, notes the LAT. As upset as gay rights activists may have been, they were hardly surprised, so they wasted no time in urging supporters to donate money and time in anticipation of the next ballot measure, which could come as early as 2010. Supporters of the ban were obviously pleased by the decision but emphasized that this is no time to rest on their laurels. It would be "foolish to think this will be the end of the battle," a pastor tells the LAT.

In an overview of the state of same-sex marriage in the country, the WP points out that, as of now, five states allow it, and four of them are in New England. The three other states that look poised to approve it in the near future are in the Northeast, "making same-sex marriage appear increasingly to be a regional phenomenon rather than a national trend."

The LAT, NYT, and WP front word that General Motors and the United Auto Workers have agreed to a new restructuring plan that would give the union a smaller stake in the company and leave the government owning as much as 70 percent of the automaker. It was previously thought that the government would get a 50 percent stake in the company. So now the much-repeated quip, which the NYT mentions today, that GM will now stand for Government Motors may be more appropriate than ever, although everyone is careful to mention the numbers could still change before GM files for bankruptcy, which is widely expected to happen Monday. The WP points out that once you add the stakes that Canada would get in the company, nearly three-quarters of the new GM could end up being government-owned.

The new bankruptcy reorganization proposal would have the United States lending the automaker around $30 billion more, in addition to the $19.4 billion it has already spent. The NYT points out that some estimate that "tens of billions beyond that amount may be required." The WSJ specifies that the plan would have the government paying off GM's secured lenders in full to the tune of around $6 billion. Out of concern for GM's future, the union sought to lower its stakes in the company down to 17.5 percent, in exchange for some concessions. As the NYT emphasizes, the idea that GM will effectively be a government company raises lots of questions since numerous "policy decisions—on matters such as fuel economy standards, tax incentives to replace aging cars and green technology initiatives—will present conflicting interests."

In the NYT's op-ed page, the paper's former Supreme Court correspondent Linda Greenhouse writes that many people ignore how the highest court in the land "is a dynamic institution whose component parts are always, although not always visibly, in motion." Even if Sotomayor holds similar views to Souter, the truth is that every time someone enters Washington's most exclusive clique, it makes a difference. "Will it be a difference that is discernible in the outcomes of cases? That may not be clear immediately." But she could eventually push some of her colleagues, particularly the main swing voter, Justice Anthony Kennedy, to see things through her eyes. Coming after a few years when it seemed the court was "headed in the opposite direction from the country," Sotomayor's arrival "will, at the least, change the way the world sees the Supreme Court."

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