Obama's big win: another liberal on the U.S. Supreme Court

Henry Champ on the nomination of Sonia Sotomayer

Fernando Miquel Negron put it this way: "There's a saying in Puerto Rico, that our coffee is maybe sour but it's our coffee. And I think that's what this is in a nutshell. People may disagree with some of her views, but they can identify with her."

Negron is a Puerto Rican, just like Sonia Sotomayor, President Barack Obama's new Supreme Court nominee. He is also one of Florida's top radio talk show hosts and his four-hour Tuesday broadcast was focused entirely on the nomination.

President Barack Obama and his Supreme Court nominee, Federal Appeal Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor at the White House. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

The response was overwhelming and the nomination itself shows a political shrewdness that is easy to overlook at first glance.

Consider the comments of Ninoska Perez Castellon to the Miami Herald that this appointment "should be an inspiration to women and to all of us who came here from different countries, especially Hispanics."

Nothing unusual in that, except that you should know Perez Castellon is a conservative founder of the Cuban Liberty Council, an outspoken opponent of the Castros and a frequent critic of Obama.

Then there is Republican Mel Martinez, a great supporter of former president George W. Bush and the first Hispanic to be elected to the U.S. Senate. "I take great pride in seeing the nomination of an Hispanic person to serve in this high position, " he said, adding, "I hope for a fair and thorough confirmation process."

Now, I have been around through many of these nomination processes in the past and it never ceases to amaze me how so many "sure-thing" candidates fail to achieve congressional approval over an unpaid tax bill, a gift that was not declared, illegal nannies or the like. (Remember Tom Daschle, Obama's first choice to head his health-care revolution.)

But Sotomayor's confirmation is probably as close to a sure thing as you will ever see.

Check, check

Let's check off the boxes.

Her financial statement was on one piece of paper.

Item one: her salary as a federal appeals judge, $183,000 a year. Item two: $130,000 in the bank.

That's it.

Her personal life? There doesn't appear to be any skeletons in the closet there either. She was divorced while in college, never remarried and has no children.

Her background is almost the classic Hollywood version of an immigrant success story. She grew up in the Bronx after her parents moved to New York from Puerto Rico. Her father, a welder, died when she was nine. Her mother, a nurse, heroically raised the bookish Sonia and her brother, financing a university start at Princeton.

Celina Sotomayor, mother of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, wipes her eye during the nomination announcement. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

Sotomayor worked and won scholarships to finish Princeton and Yale law school, from where she went on to become a prosecutor and serve in a large law firm.

Adding to her political armour, she was picked by former Republican president George Bush Sr. to serve as a federal judge and Bill Clinton, a Democrat, for the court of appeal.

She has ruled on some significant cases but, as luck would have it, she has not sat on those sharply controversial cases such as abortion or gun control that would give fodder to any Republican conservatives who might seek to overturn an Obama nominee.

Her expertise is largely with corporate issues and child custody cases.

Saved baseball

Her biggest public decision was made in 1995 when she effectively ended the baseball strike.

She sided with the players in the dispute and the owners folded rather than try to carry the fight any further. I, and many others back then, often said that she saved baseball. I have to confess we probably didn't much care who she favoured just as long the ballparks were opened.

Her most controversial decision, also among the briefest, was probably the one involving the New Haven firefighters, which my colleague Neil Macdonald wrote about last month.

The appeals court sided with the city of New Haven's decision to scrap promotions for its firefighters after it came about that only white candidates passed the promotions test.

Conservative broadcaster Rush Limbaugh told his audience Tuesday that Sotomayor was a "horrible" pick and a "racist," because of the New Haven decision.

"She is not the brain they're portraying her to be," Limbaugh said. "She's not a constitutional jurist. She is an affirmative action case extraordinaire and she has put down white men in favour of Latina women."

An activist judge

However, other leading Republicans, like party strategist Mark McKinnon, are counselling caution: "If Republicans make a big deal of opposing Sotomayer, we will be hurling ourselves off a cliff," he said. "Death will not be assured, but major injury will be."

Matthew Dowd, another former Bush lieutenant, observes that, to win back the White House, Republicans need to win 40 per cent of the Hispanic vote.

Hispanics are the fastest growing voting bloc in the U.S. today and Dowd says Republicans will doom themselves to long-term minority status if they are seen to rally against one of their icons.

Barring any unforeseen explosion in Sotomayer's background, the clear victor here is president Obama, who wins on several fronts.

He keeps faith with his female supporters by appointing a woman. He scores enormous points with Hispanic voters. And the nomination appeals to his large left-of-centre contingent.

Make no mistake, Sotomayor has sounded like the kind of activist jurist that many in the U.S. Senate love to reject. 

Consider these statements from the past.

At a 2002 lecture, making the point that ethnicity and gender are important factors in judgeship, she said: "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 haven't lived that life."

You can bet there was some throat clearing at the yacht clubs over that bromide.

At a Duke University conference, she once suggested that a "court of appeal is where policy is made," adding that she "was thrilled to be named to the court of appeal so she could begin changing society."

A big win for Obama

Given her age, 52, she could serve for 30 years and become a lion of the court.

Many at the press conference Tuesday stifled laughter when the president talked of the qualities that led him to select Sotomayor for the high court.

"A judge's job is to interpret, not make law," Obama said. It is "to approach decisions without any particular ideology or agenda, but rather a commitment to impartial justice, a respect for precedent and to faithfully apply the law to the facts at hand."

But of course you have to balance that statement with the political reality of Washington at the moment.

The president has the votes in Congress to push this nomination through and there is nothing the Republicans can really do about it. The choice, at least in the short term, seems popular with voters, even conservative Hispanics who may now have a new take on this Democratic president.

The lady is clearly a liberal. But that is the nature of the U.S. Supreme Court today — a bench that is largely and historically divided between conservative and liberal judges.

In an ideal world, Obama may want an impartial, pragmatic jurist for the top court in the land. But if he ends up with an inspiring, blemish-free liberal, whose very appointment tells liberal voters that this is the way to ensure some of the progressive changes they want, then that is a big political win as well.