Sotomayor nomination draws both praise and fire

By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Setting up what will almost certainly become a Capitol Hill battle of supreme proportions, President Barack Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor, a judge for the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, to replace retiring Justice David Souter on the U.S. Supreme Court.

If she’s confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Sotomayor will become the third woman and the first Hispanic ever to serve on the nation’s highest court.

Obama’s choice drew both praise and fire as soon as it was announced on Tuesday. Republicans instantly called her out as a liberal activist judge with a history of making policy from the bench. Democrats, meanwhile, sang her praises and expressed excitement that a Hispanic finally had been nominated to the bench.

“She is a wonderful, wonderful person who cares very deeply about the people she meets and works with,” former longtime Colorado legislator Polly Baca told The Colorado Statesman Wednesday. “She is a perfect fit for this position.”

Baca, who has been a family friend of Sotomayor’s for more than 20 years, said the nominee’s resumé, education and background combine to qualify her for the highest judicial post in the land, adding that you don’t come out of the Bronx, as Sotomayor did, on full-ride scholarships to Ivy League schools unless you’re something special.

“She is going to be one of the best Supreme Court justices we’ve had on the bench,” Baca said. “She is brilliant... her mind is just incredible. She has the capacity to see the whole picture as well as the details. She comes from a background that enables her to understand so many issues that are impacted by the law and the impact on people and on businesses. She can utilize her personal experience to help make the best decisions possible.”

Not everyone, however, shares Baca’s joy over Sotomayor’s nomination.

When contacted by The Statesman, Colorado Republican Chair Dick Wadhams said some real concerns hover over Sotomayor, and that the confirmation hearings in coming weeks and months will prove important for Americans who haven’t yet gotten to know her.

“I do think that there are some legitimate concerns being expressed about her views on judicial activism that need to be fully explored,” Wadhams said.

Wadhams also said public notice should be taken of the restrained Republican response to Sotomayor’s nomination, compared with the way Democrats reacted to both of President George W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominees.

“I would point out that there is a marked difference between the respectful reaction by all the Republican voices I heard yesterday versus the immediate condemnation and character assassination that occurred by Democrats when Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito were announced by President Bush,” Wadhams said. “I am pleased with the respectful tone with which the nomination was met yesterday, and I wish Democrats had done the same thing a few years ago.”

However, although many Republicans were respectful of Sotomayor’s nomination, including seven members of the U.S. Senate who have voted twice to confirm her on the federal appeals court, not everyone in the GOP exhibited restraint.

Former 6th District Congressman Tom Tancredo called Sotomayor a “racist” on MSNBC Tuesday night, and that opinion also was expressed by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who cited a 2002 quote from Sotomayor in which she said her experiences as a Hispanic woman gave her better insight into making decisions than a white male who lacked her experiences would have.

Baca, however, dismisses that statement — and other GOP criticism of Sotomayor — as party politics.

“They are stretching. They are picking at straws,” said Baca, who was interviewed by the FBI last week as part of the Justice Department’s background investigation of Sotomayor.

“We all misspeak at times, and she made a comment off the cuff seven years ago, and it’s just silly that it’s being brought up now,” Baca said. “They are just searching for something to go after her with. And I find it sad, because they ought to find something meaningful, and they can’t.”

Nevertheless, Wadhams’ observation carries some weight. Quiet voices within the GOP are cautioning against taking too strong a stand against Sotomayor, calling it politically unwise to attack the nation’s first Hispanic Supreme Court nominee. Some strategists believe that voicing strong opposition to Sotomayor could turn off Latinos, an increasingly important constituency in America.

“I think we will vet her experiences and her background and ask important questions,” Wadhams said. “But I have no doubt in my mind that she will be confirmed.”

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Eldorado Springs, said he hasn’t yet determined how he is going to vote on Sotomayor’s confirmation, but he is impressed by her qualifications.

“I’m going to take my time to study Judge Sotomayor’s record and background, and I look forward to meeting with her,” Udall said. “Like the president, I believe that any Supreme Court justice must reject ideology, have a keen intellect, and a practical understanding of how the Supreme Court’s actions affect the lives of all Americans. Judge Sotomayor is an extremely accomplished jurist, and she has a very compelling personal story. She appears to be a wise choice and a valuable addition to the Court.”

Former Colorado Senator and Obama’s Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, also expressed appreciation for her qualifications. Salazar’s name was floated last week as a possible candidate for the Supreme Court and was included in a letter from Gov. Bill Ritter and Udall to Obama asking the president to consider his appointment.

In a written statement, Salazar had high praise for Sotomayor.

“Her three decades of experience as a lawyer and a judge is stellar in every way; from serving as prosecutor to trial court judge and appellate court judge, she has earned distinction at every level and has proven to be a fair, tough, champion for the law. I am so proud of President Obama, Judge Sotomayor, and our great country for taking a giant leap in our nation’s path of progress with a landmark nomination of such a highly qualified candidate,” he said.

Jason@coloradostatesman.com