May 18th, 2009
04:31 PM ET
14 years ago

Hispanic groups quietly press for Supreme Court pick


[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="Hispanic groups are courting President Obama to name the first Hispanic judge to the Supreme Court."]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 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 "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."

Filed under: Supreme Court
soundoff (42 Responses)
  1. scott stodden

    I think it would be very interesting if a Hispanic was appointed to the post in the Supreme Court but not just a man. Maybe a Hispanic woman or a black women, what about that? Thats what I would do

    Scott Stodden (Freeport, Il)

    May 18, 2009 04:37 pm at 4:37 pm |
  2. Doug, New Jersey

    To choose someone on merit rather than race like the republicans did with Clarence Thomas and John Roberts is racist, gotta be lib and make it all about how someone looks rather than what is in their hearts. Well then again we are talking about a Democrat who is going to be picked here, so I guess then anything else is better than what is in their heart, or lack of one actually.

    May 18, 2009 04:40 pm at 4:40 pm |
  3. Claudia in Houson

    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.

    May 18, 2009 04:41 pm at 4:41 pm |
  4. jm for sc

    He can only select one person. I just hope it is the best person for the job.

    May 18, 2009 04:42 pm at 4:42 pm |
  5. Tacuache

    Isn't Alito Hispanic? What is he?

    May 18, 2009 04:45 pm at 4:45 pm |
  6. Ed, Santa Fe, NM

    Ya right... try for Alberto Gonzales.....


    May 18, 2009 04:49 pm at 4:49 pm |
  7. KLK

    Pres. Obama needs to pick the BEST person for the job, irrespective of race and gender.

    May 18, 2009 04:50 pm at 4:50 pm |
  8. JP

    I didn't know affirmitive action quotas applied to the supreme.

    May 18, 2009 04:51 pm at 4:51 pm |
  9. AnnMM

    How about doing something radical? Like maybe just picking the best person for the job? I know – now I'm just talking crazy.

    May 18, 2009 04:52 pm at 4:52 pm |
  10. NObama is our downfall

    As a liberal, i don't care how qualified the person he picks is, as long as it's a minority.

    But since I want a minority based on their skin color, you can't call me racist. Now excuse me, Spongebob is about to come on, and i never miss a show!!!!

    May 18, 2009 04:54 pm at 4:54 pm |
  11. Kelby In Houston, TX

    yeah, who cares what the hispanic groups are pressing for. The most qualified person should be chosen. In my most humble opinion after a short amount or research, the natural pick is Sonia hey! look at that, She is a Latina.
    Oh by the way, hispanic groups, when you talk to repuglicans and conservatives about getting a latino on the bench, DON'T MENTION THE WORD EMPATHY! they think it's some sort of secret code for liberal. 🙂
    stop laughing I'm serious!

    May 18, 2009 04:54 pm at 4:54 pm |
  12. Peggy from IA

    No, no, no. Not by race anymore! Best person regardless of gender or race.

    May 18, 2009 04:57 pm at 4:57 pm |
  13. Obama Victim

    well, that is a pretty high bar...............first they have to be legal..and it probably would be best if thay had paid their taxes...can we find a Latino that qualifies??

    May 18, 2009 04:57 pm at 4:57 pm |
  14. Nat, NYC

    Why not Russian, Polish, Chinese, ... Because these immigrant groups better assimilated into American life, only Hispanics demanding use of their language and positions in government to push theirs intruding agendas. It looks like American liberals gave already to much power to liberal Hispanic groups. We all will regret it very soon.

    May 18, 2009 05:00 pm at 5:00 pm |
  15. Sam in Houston

    but with obama in the black house he will pick a black person for the job. so he can do what ever he can do to turn us into a socal country.
    i cant wait for 2012.

    May 18, 2009 05:02 pm at 5:02 pm |
  16. C W

    I want someone who is qualified and can think for him/herself (unlike Thomas, who blindly follows Scalia). I don't want an activist far-right justice, because those folks are dunderheads (see comment about Thomas and Scalia).

    May 18, 2009 05:04 pm at 5:04 pm |
  17. Mari( maybe one of my comments will be posted)

    @ Ed, Santa Fe, NM......... Ethnicity matters, Ed, because right now there is ONE woman and ONE minority on the Court.

    We are a diverse Nation, the Supreme Court needs to reflect our diversity.

    A Hispanic woman, or an African American Woman. Hispanics have contributed much to our Nation, I am sure there are plenty of qualified Latinos who would make a great judge.

    May 18, 2009 05:04 pm at 5:04 pm |
  18. Fair is Fair

    On with the rose colored glasses...

    Let's choose someone who will interpret the constitution as the framers of the greatest document ever created by mankind intended.

    Off with the rose colored glasses...

    Let's choose someone who will satisfy the most special interest groups possible, thereby ensuring the maximum number of votes in the next election cycle. After all, the constitution is a "living document"... right??

    May 18, 2009 05:05 pm at 5:05 pm |
  19. Robert

    Are Supreme Court Judges hired based upon Ethnic and Racial Quota?


    Are they hired on Merit?

    May 18, 2009 05:07 pm at 5:07 pm |
  20. Peter (CA)

    Clarence Thomas-merit????
    That has got to be one of the most delusional comments I have seen on here.

    The push for a Hispanic makes sense as the Hispanics are such a huge group in this country. Why should there not be a highly qualified Hispanic on the court?

    But since right wingers like Sam @5:02 are around, I am sure ANY pick will be treated disrespectfully.

    May 18, 2009 05:09 pm at 5:09 pm |
  21. William

    Dear Mr. President,

    Please ignore all these special interest groups, who are trying to tell you who should be the next Justice. Choose someone you know is right for the job and subject him or her to no political correctness tests. And, sir, resist the pressure to make your choice a woman. There are too many very qualified men available to make this appointment an exercise in feminism. This isn't to say that a woman may not be the best choice, but far too many people mistakenly believe that it must be a woman. That, sir, is sexism.

    May 18, 2009 05:09 pm at 5:09 pm |
  22. C W

    Obama victim: You are a racist by saying, "first they have to be legal..and it probably would be best if thay had paid their taxes…can we find a Latino that qualifies??"

    My best friend in high school was Hispanic whose her parents were legal immigrants from Mexico. They both went to college and all their kids went and graduated, too. I knew their extended family, all of whom were legal and hardworking, contributing members of society.

    Myself being a person of mixed-ethnic descent and someone who has lived in many parts of the world, I can tell you that what makes a person is character and has nothing to do with their ethnic background, race, gender, color, age or sexual orientation.

    It all comes down to character – and in the case of the Supreme Court, intelligence. Two things I strongly suspect you are sorely lacking.

    May 18, 2009 05:09 pm at 5:09 pm |
  23. TheThinker

    If Obama picks Sonia Sotomaior and the Repubs try to filibuster her, they can count on losing the Latino vote forevermore.

    May 18, 2009 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |
  24. Henry Miller, Cary, NC

    Why, I wonder, do Latinos want a Latino Suprem Court Justice? Could it really be that, rather than having unbiased judge who will decide issues on their merits, they want a judge biased in favor of Latinos and any issues that are of collective issues to Latinos?

    The only reason various groups could possibly have for insisting on one of their own as the next Supreme Court Justice the hope of a judge biased in their favor–and that's fundamentally wrong. The purpose of the Court is to make impartial, unbiased decisions, not promote the interests of one group or another.

    May 18, 2009 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |
  25. D from MI

    Did you read the article before you posted, Robert? All but two justices were men and all but two justices were white. You tell me if the justices in the past were ever just hired on merit alone ...

    May 18, 2009 05:14 pm at 5:14 pm |
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