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Judge Sonia Sotomayor has credentials and a compelling story—A Commentary by David A. Perez ’10

The following commentary was published in the Seattle Times on May 27, 2009.

Judge Sonia Sotomayor has credentials and a compelling story
By David A. Perez ’10

THE United States Supreme Court, despite its long and storied history, is still missing many firsts, such as the first Asian nominee or the first openly gay nominee. But perhaps the most glaring void is the absence of a Latino nominee.

President Barack Obama's choice to fill the seat made vacant by Justice David Souter's retirement begins to address this anachronism. The president openly sought a candidate who would bring real-life experience to the bench, and he could not have chosen better.

His nominee, Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, a graduate of Princeton University and Yale Law School, brings with her the experience of having grown up Latino in a country with more than 45 million Hispanics — which is more than every Latin American country except Mexico.

Her experience is not limited to being a woman or to being Latino. Sotomayor's depth and breadth of experience are rare — even for the Supreme Court. With almost 17 years on the federal bench, Sotomayor would be the most experienced appointee to the Supreme Court in 75 years.

Some argue that Obama should have chosen blindly, and ignored whether a judge came from a particular background, or is of a particular gender. That observation misses the point: Law schools can teach anyone; the rigors of the appellate circuit can train anyone; but neither can provide the insight needed to understand how a community is affected by our nation's laws, and by our judicial decisions.

Experience is lived, not taught. As Sotomayor herself once said, "Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see."

For example, earlier this year, after hearing a case involving the strip-search of a 13-year-old girl, Justice Ruth-Bader Ginsburg wondered whether her colleagues on the panel — all men — could really understand what that young girl went through. How could they? They are all men.

By the same token, the court regularly hears cases that directly affect the ever-growing Latino community, such as redistricting plans, labor and employment disputes, immigration and affirmative action.

Given this docket, it is time that our highest judicial panel included a Latino voice.

In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson did something no other president had ever done; he nominated Thurgood Marshall, an African American, to the Supreme Court.

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan made a decision as bold as Johnson's by nominating Sandra Day O'Connor as the first woman to the Supreme Court.

The significance of these nominations was not lost on Obama when he chose Sotomayor. He realizes that, despite the historically homogeneous composition of the Supreme Court, the nation has been changing for a long time.

During the past election we witnessed an African-American man reach the highest level of government. Partly as a result, we now have the opportunity to see a Latino woman do the same.

Hopefully, the Senate will understand this change, look to the future and embrace the historic opportunity of Sotomayor's nomination.

David A. Perez attends Yale Law School and is the chairman of the National Latino Law Students Association. He is interning at a Seattle Law firm this summer.