Judge Sotomayor's Nomination

By Jim Wallis 5-26-2009

This morning I was touched and blessed by the tears of a Puerto Rican immigrant grandmother. She came to the U.S. in the midst of World War II and served in the Women's Auxiliary Corps during the war. Her husband died while her children were young, and she worked hard as a nurse to raise her two children in a South Bronx housing project in New York City. She instilled in her children a belief in the power and importance of education, and her son, Juan, went on to graduate from medical school and is now a physician in Syracuse, New York.

Her daughter, Sonia, was high school class valedictorian, graduated from Princeton and then from Yale Law School. Today, a mother's tears told volumes of an American story as her daughter, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, was nominated to become the first Latina justice for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Her story and rise through the judicial system are powerful examples of an American story. She will bring more federal judicial experience to the court than any justice in 100 years. Originally nominated to the District Court for the Southern District of New York by President George H.W. Bush, and then later to the Second Circuit Court by President Bill Clinton, she has received bipartisan support from politicians and bipartisan praise from her peers.

For those who have been looking for more evidence of President Obama's common-ground approach to the issue of abortion outlined last week at Notre Dame, here it is. As a judge, she has participated in more than 3,000 panel decisions and authored almost 400 opinions and only ruled once on the issue of abortion. In that case she wrote from a centrist position and ruled against a pro-choice organization. Many other possible nominations could have been a slap in the face to either side, but the president used this as an opportunity to further his common-ground approach.

But her nomination process should be about much more than abortion. The country has spent too much time reducing the Supreme Court to a proxy battle over just one issue. Issues of human rights, executive power, civil liberties, racial justice, environmental protection, and other pressing issues of our time are at stake. Judge Sotomayor has already shown strong support for racial equality. Groups on both sides have used judicial nominations as an opportunity for fundraising appeals while progress is waiting to be made on actually reducing the number of abortions.

In leaked talking points from the Republican National Committee, party members were asked to be "fair" and to avoid "partisanship and knee-jerk judgments." I certainly hope this is true -- in contrast to early reports that Republican leaders had been hoping to use any nominee for partisan ends.

The religious community should be encouraged to see the nomination of a judge with a strong history of upholding and interpreting the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the Constitution to ensure religious liberties while still respecting the Establishment Clause. She has protected the rights of a rabbi to display a menorah on public property and in favor of inmates' religious expression. In one case that is of particular interest to those concerned with religious hiring protections, she wrote a dissenting opinion that argued against undue government intrusion into religious matters and institutions. She wrote in her opinion, "Federal court entanglement in matters as fundamental as a religious institution's selection or dismissal of its spiritual leaders risks an unconstitutional trespass on the most spiritually intimate ground of a religious community's existence."

Over the course of the coming weeks, the U.S. Senate will review Judge Sotomayor's record and credentials and seek to understand her judicial philosophy. I pray for the wisdom of our elected officials and for a healthy process in which tough questions can be asked and answered. There are good Christians who will agree and disagree on her nomination, but we can all be impressed and encouraged by the answered prayers and dreams of an immigrant grandmother from Puerto Rico.

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