President Barack Obama tapped federal appeals for the Supreme Court on Tuesday, officials said, making her the first Hispanic in history picked to wear the robes of a justice.
If confirmed by the Senate, Sotomayor, 54, would succeed retiring Justice David Souter. Two officials described Obama’s decision on condition of anonymity because no formal announcement had been made.
Administration officials say Sotomayor, with 17 years on the bench, would bring more judicial experience to the Supreme Court than any justice confirmed in the past 70 years.
A formal announcement was expected at midmorning.
Obama had said publicly he wanted a justice who combined intellect and empathy — the ability to understand the troubles of everyday Americans.
While Republican critics chafed at that, Democrats hold a large majority in the Senate, and barring the unexpected, Sotomayor’s confirmation should be assured. If approved, she would join Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the second woman on the current court.
In one of Sotomayor’s most notable decisions, as an appellate judge she sided last year with the city of New Haven, Conn., in a discrimination case brought by white firefighters. The city threw out results of a promotion exam because too few minorities scored high enough. Ironically, that case is now before the Supreme Court.
That ruling has already drawn criticism from conservatives, and is likely to play a role in her confirmation hearing.
Sotomayor is a self-described “Newyorkrican” who grew up in a Bronx housing project after her parents moved to New York from Puerto Rico. She has dealt with diabetes since age 8 and lost her father at age 9, growing up under the care of her mother in humble surroundings. As a girl, inspired by the Perry Mason television show, she knew she wanted to be a judge.
A graduate of Princeton University and Yale Law School, a former prosecutor and private attorney, Sotomayor became a federal judge for the Southern District of New York in 1992. She became an appeals judge in 1998 for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, which covers New York, Vermont and Connecticut.
As a judge, she has a bipartisan pedigree. She was first appointed by a Republican, President George H.W. Bush, and won Senate confirmation without dissent. She was named an appeals judge by President Bill Clinton in 1997.
At her Senate confirmation hearing more than a decade ago, she said, “I don’t believe we should bend the Constitution under any circumstance. It says what it says. We should do honor to it.”
In one of her most memorable rulings as federal district judge, Sotomayor essentially salvaged baseball in 1995, ruling with players over owners in a labor strike that had led to the cancellation of the World Series.
Obama’s nomination is the first by a Democratic president in 15 years.
His announcement also leaves the Senate four months — more than enough by traditional standards — to complete confirmation proceedings before the Court begins its next term in the fall.
Republicans have issued conflicting signals about their intentions. While some have threatened filibusters if they deemed Obama’s pick too liberal, others have said that is unlikely.
Given Sotomayor’s selection, any decision to filibuster would presumably carry political risks — Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the population and an increasingly important one politically.
One conservative group did not wait for the formal announcement. Wendy Long of the Judicial Confirmation Network, issued a statement calling Sotomayor a “liberal judicial activist of the first order who thinks her own personal political agenda is more important that the law as written.”
Abortion rights have been a flashpoint in several recent Supreme Court confirmations, although Sotomayor has not authored any controversial rulings on the subject.
As a federal appeals court judge in 2002, Sotomayor ruled against an abortion rights group that had challenged a government policy prohibiting foreign organizations receiving U.S. funds from performing or supporting abortions.
In her opinion, Sotomayor wrote that the government was free to favor the anti-abortion position over a pro-choice position when public funds are involved.
Sotomayor’s elevation to the appeals court was delayed by Republicans, in part out of concerns she might someday be selected for the Supreme Court. She was ultimately confirmed for the appeals court in 1998 on a 68-28 vote, gathering some Republican support.
Among those voting against her was Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, now the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee that will hold sway over her confirmation.
“I’d say the stakes are higher for the Supreme Court,” he said recently. “The Supreme Court sometimes seems to be acting as a continuing constitutional convention, so I am concerned about that.” He said Sotomayor would be entitled to a “fair hearing” if nominated.
Sotomayor possesses credentials Sessions said he wanted in a pick for the high court — years of experience on the bench. Obama had talked openly about the upside of choosing someone outside the judiciary — every single current justice is a former federal appeals court judge — but passed on at least two serious candidates who had never been judges.
Sotomayor has spoken openly about her pride in being Latina, and that personal experiences “affect the facts that judges choose to see.”
“I simply do not know exactly what the difference will be in my judging,” she said in a speech in 2002. “But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage.”
From the moment Souter announced his resignation, it was widely assumed Obama would select a woman to replace him, and perhaps a Hispanic as well.
Others known to have been considered included federal appeals judge Diane Wood, who was a colleague of the president’s at the University of Chicago law school, as well as two members of his administration, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Solicitor General-nominee Elena Kagan.
If confirmed, Sotomayor is unlikely to alter the ideological balance of the court, since Souter generally sides with the so-called liberals on key 5-4 rulings.
But at 54, she is a generation younger that Souter, and liberal outside groups hope she would provide a counterpoint to some of the sharply worded conservative rulings.
Obama came to office at a time when several potential vacancies loomed on the high court. Justice John Paul Stevens at is 89, and Ginsburg recently underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.