WASHINGTON (CNN) - When it comes to its membership, the history of the Supreme Court's 220 years falls short of many historic firsts: All but two of the 110 justices over the centuries have been men; all but two have been white.
Now, many in the Hispanic community say it is long past due one of their own should sit on the most prestigious bench. They may soon get the chance.
President Barack Obama is just days, perhaps, from naming his choice to fill the seat being vacated by retiring Justice David Souter, and sources close to the selection process say he is seriously considering several Hispanic candidates.
"Latinos are running out of patience" said Ruben Navarrette, a syndicated columnist and CNN.com contributor. " For 20 years I've been hearing the drumbeat from Latinos ... waiting for a Latino on the Supreme Court."
The Hispanic vote was key to Obama's November victory, and now that part of his diverse coalition sees a golden opportunity.
"We're getting calls and e-mails from people all over the country," said Estuardo Rodriguez, co-founder of Hispanics for a Fair Judiciary Coalition. "That sentiment goes all the way from the extreme that it has to be - has to be - a Latino or Latina justice, to those that say yes, we want a Latino or Latina justice, but if it doesn't happen, perhaps next time. So it runs the gamut.
"But I think for the most part it is people on that other extreme who are really excited and really do feel that this is the time to do it."
The coalition was among several mostly liberal advocacy groups that met privately last week with White House officials. Sources say the strategy from the Obama team was to calm any anxiety among progressives over who the president would nominate.
"These groups were urged to kind of hold their fire, not make public demands on the choice, not engage the right just yet," said one source. "They were told: Trust us."
Competing coalitions say they would abide - to a point.
"We do understand that the administration has asked to keep the door open on some of the discussions, and how important it is to keep in touch for the support that we can give any nominee," Rodriguez said. "Our concern from the very beginning has been that the nominee, regardless of ethnicity, is that it is someone who can represent the interests of all Americans, and specifically as it relates to the civil rights challenges we face today."
Leading Hispanic groups have been careful not to create the perception they are demanding a Latino or Latina be nominated, nor that they are seeking direct political payback for their election support.
"Hispanic advocacy groups are actually very sophisticated about this," said Thomas Goldstein, an appellate attorney and co-founder of scotusblog.com. "They are aware of the prospect they may push the White House too far. They haven't laid it all on the line and demanded an appointment. They haven't claimed a right to an appointment. But they do think it is very important to impress on the White House how tremendously important this historic moment is."
The White House has publicly discouraged advocacy groups in general from "lobbying" over the Supreme Court, saying such efforts would not be helpful to their cause.
Perhaps the most talked-about candidate of all the possibles is Sonia Sotomayor, a federal appeals court judge with the 2nd Circuit in New York. She has been mentioned as a front-runner by sources close to Obama for months, and was scheduled to meet soon in person with Obama to discuss the vacancy.
The 54-year-old New York native is of Puerto Rican descent. Her personal story is compelling. Her father died when she was a child, and her mother raised young Sonia and her brother while working as a nurse. They lived in a Bronx public housing project. Given a foundation in the importance of education, Sotomayor graduated from Princeton and later Yale Law School. She was named to the federal bench first by President George H.W. Bush in 1992 as a trial judge, then elevated to the appeals court by President Bill Clinton.
Her prominence in discussions about the Supreme Court seat has led to a good deal of public attention, both favorable and not. Friends and colleagues praise the judge's life story and impeccable legal credentials. But she has suffered through recent stinging criticism in the media and blogs from both the left and right over perceived - some defenders say invented - concerns about her temperament and intellect.
Some Hispanic groups expressed concern after a skit last week on "The Late Show with David Letterman" compared Sotomayor with a noisy Spanish-speaking judge on a popular TV courtroom show that settles petty legal disputes.
"Clearly she has some controversy around her," said Gary Marx of the conservative Judicial Confirmation Network. "She has even been attacked from the left for some areas considering her temperament, and how she treated people from the bench."
Sotomayor was cited for ruling against white firefighters in New Haven, Connecticut, who brought suit for "reverse" discrimination after being denied promotions. The city had tossed out results of the tests after too few African-Americans and other minorities qualified for open captain and lieutenant positions. The Supreme Court took up the case and will likely issue a ruling next month.
A new Judicial Confirmation Network online video criticizes her decision. "Every American understands the sacrifices firefighters make," said the ad. "But in Sotomayor's court, the content of your character is not as important as the color of your skin."
Many Hispanic leaders say if Obama believes Sotomayor is the best candidate, he should choose her, regardless of the political consequences. "There is always going to be another argument" against choosing a Hispanic, Navarrette said. "Just as there were argument against Sandra Day O'Connor," who was named the first woman justice in 1981.
"Barack Obama simply has to bite the bullet, pick the best person and weather the storm."
Other leading Hispanic candidates include Los Angeles-based federal appeals Judge Kim Wardlaw; California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno; federal District Judge Ruben Castillo of Chicago; and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority in the United States, now making up nearly one in six residents.
If the current vacancy is not filled by a Latino, or a Latina, then what? Some White House officials believe the president may get at least two more appointments.
"Hispanic groups are being very vocal right now," said Goldstein, "but they have told the White House privately that they are at the very least concerned that at some point during President Obama's presidency they do get an appointment, even if it's not this one."
That worries some people, who say naming the nation's first Hispanic justice now would bring immediate and long-term social and political benefits.
"We (Hispanics) are submersed in the American culture, but the only way you know that is if you're exposed to them," Navarrette said. "And this a good opportunity. What are we supposed to wait, another 10 to 15 years? Is there a guarantee the longer we wait the ignorance is somehow going to get diminished? It's only going to get diminished when someone breaks that barrier."
Perhaps it is time to stop all the ethnic and gender drum beating and raise the expectation that the President appoint the most qualified person to fill the vacancy. I always thought that was the way it was supposed to work.
Maybe I missed something here. If that is the case then since my ancestry is Swede and Scot I believe that the President needs to find someone with that ancestry and appoint them so that they may serve my interests. That, to me makes as much sense as any of the other arguments.
I think that Obama will pick the most qualified candidate for the post, but will look at candidates in a range of ethnicities. Diversity of race, background, experience, education, etc. creates diversity of point of view, and could only help to strengthen the Supreme Court. However, I do not think that Obama would pick a candidate soley based on race.
What ever happened to picking the best person for the job?
While I would like to see a black woman given this honor-in all fairness it should be a Hispanic woman. Having said that-I am insulted he is interviewing Napolitano and Granholm. It is my understanding Napotalino already has a job on his cabinet. I am very disappointed he is not even considering a black woman to interview. Is he saying there are not any worthy of this cause? This just may cause him my vote next election.
Hey, let's pick Bill Ayers, so he can take all the Gitmo prisoners to his home in Chicago
@Claudia in Houson May 18th, 2009 4:41 pm ET
I believe Obama will pick a Hispanic just like George H. W. Bush picked Justice Clarence Thomas and a lot of good Thomas has done for minorities.***Clarence Thomas is a House NIG and Anita Hill was not lying on him*** Thurgood Marshall was a great man......I will respect President Obama chioce but we need a Woman.... Race does not matter
I am LOLing, because I have come to believe "the hand that rocks the cradle "should" rule the world ! bring on the women..the men have forever shown the world what they can and can NOT do..its time for women to rule !
Just pick an honest person who is gonna be impartial to all races, religions, etc and abide by the Constituion. Not the Obama constitution.
@ Shirley in CA:
The most basic tenet of the judicial system in this country is "justice is blind" – and I wholeheartedly agree.
I understand the arguements for ethnicity... race... color... gender. Really, I do!!!
But... far, far more important is that the nominee should be someone who interprets the Constitution – the greatest document ever produced by mankind – as the framers of the document intended.
Don't you agree?
I'm so sick of everyone putting in their 2 cents on who Obama should pick. This is a pick to the supreme court, not an affirmative action position to fill a quota. I don't care what color they are, and I don't care what plumbing they have in their crotch.. all I care is who is the most qualified... that's it.
I'm a white guy, and I believe it needs to be a minority: Hispanic or Asian. We need a liberal/progressive on the court.
The "Obama Constitution" is the US Constitution–one he respects.
Unlike the previous guy and his goons who tore it to shreds to make their point.
Obama will select whoever George Soros tells him to select.
Ruben Navarrette writes column after column taking nasty, mean-spirited potshots against Obama. What makes him think that Obama gives a flying **** what Navarrette wants?
It's not racial if it's true.