08.06.09

Closing Statement On The Nomination Of Sonia Sotomayor To Be A Justice Of The United States Supreme Court Senate Debate

As we conclude Senate consideration of this nomination, I thank those Senators who have evaluated this nomination fairly and, in particular, those Republican Senators who have shown the independence to join in the bipartisan confirmation of this historic nomination.
 
Critics have attacked President Obama’s nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor by contending that he picked her for the Supreme Court to substitute empathy for the rule of law.  These critics are wrong about the President and wrong about Sonia Sotomayor.
 
When the President announced his choice of Judge Sotomayor 10 weeks ago, he focused on the qualities he sought in a nominee.  He started with “rigorous intellect” and “a mastery of the law.”  He then referred to recognition of the limits of the judicial role when he talked about “an understanding that a judge’s job is to interpret, not make, law; to approach decisions without any particular ideology or agenda, but rather a commitment to impartial justice; a respect for precedent and a determination to faithfully apply the law to the facts at hand.”
 
Having set forth those fundamental qualities, he went on to mention experience.  He said:  “Experience being tested by obstacles and barriers, by hardships and misfortune; experience insisting, persisting, and ultimately overcoming those barriers.  It is experience that can give a person a common touch and a sense of compassion; an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live.  And that is why it is a necessary ingredient in the kind of justice we need on the Supreme Court.”
 
The President concluded by discussing how Judge Sotomayor has all of these qualities.  The President was looking not just for lawyerly ability, but for wisdom -- for an understanding of how the law and justice work in the everyday lives of Americans.
 
In a subsequent radio and Internet address, the President reiterated the point when he said: “As a Justice of the Supreme Court, she will bring not only the experience acquired over the course of a brilliant legal career, but the wisdom accumulated over the course of an extraordinary journey – a journey defined by hard work, fierce intelligence, and the enduring faith that, in America, all things are possible.”
 
President Obama did not say that he viewed compassion or empathy as a substitute for the rule of law.  In fact, he has never said he would substitute empathy for the rule of law.  That is a false choice.  The opposition to this nomination is based on a false premise.
 
When she was first named, Judge Sotomayor said: “I firmly believe in the rule of law as the foundation for all of our basic rights.”   Judge Sotomayor reiterated time and time again during her confirmation hearing her fidelity to the rule of law.  She said: “Judges can't rely on what's in their heart.  They don't determine the law. Congress makes the laws. The job of the judge is to apply the law. And so it's not the heart that compels conclusions in cases. It's the law. The judge applies the law to the facts before that judge.”
Those who, after four days of hearings, would ignore her testimony, should take heed of her record as a judge.  Judge Sotomayor has demonstrated her fairness and impartiality during her 17 years as a judge.  She has followed the law.  There is no record of her substituting her personal views for the law.  The many independent studies that have closely examined Judge Sotomayor’s record have concluded that it is a record of applying the law, not bias.

What she has said, and what we should all acknowledge, is the value her background brings to her as a judge and would bring to her as a justice, our first Latina justice.
 
Judge Sotomayor is certainly not the first nominee to discuss how her background has shaped her character.  Justice O’Connor has acknowledged: “We’re all creatures of our upbringing. We bring whatever we are as people to a job like the Supreme Court.”  Many recent justices have spoken of their life experiences as influential factors in how they approach the bench.  Justice Alito and Justice Thomas did so famously at their confirmation hearings, and were praised for doing so on the Republican side of the aisle.  Indeed, when the first President Bush nominated Justice Thomas to the Supreme Court, he touted him as an “intelligent person who has great empathy.”
 
Some of those choosing to oppose this historic nomination have tried to justify their opposition by falsely contending that President Obama is pitting empathy against the rule of law.  This President and this nominee are committed to the rule of law.  They recognize the role of life experience, not as a substitute for the law or in conflict with its mandates, but as informing judgment.
 
What is really at play is not a new Obama “empathy standard” with respect to judicial selection but a double standard being applied by those who supported the nominations of Justice Alito and Justice Thomas but choose to oppose the historic nomination of Sonia Sotomayor.  
Judge Sotomayor’s career and judicial record demonstrates that she has always followed the rule of law.  Attempts at distorting that record by suggesting that her ethnicity or heritage will be the driving force in her decisions as a Justice of the Supreme Court are demeaning to women and all communities of color.

I have spoken over the last several years about urging Presidents from both political parties to nominate someone from outside the “judicial monastery” to the Supreme Court.  I believe that experience, perspective, an understanding of how the world works and people live and the effect decisions will have on the lives of people, are very important qualifications.  By striving for a more diverse bench drawn from judges with a wider set of backgrounds and experiences we can better ensure that will be no prejudices and biases controlling our courts of justice.  All nominees have talked about the value they will draw on the bench from their backgrounds.  That diversity of experience is a strength and not a weakness in achieving an impartial judiciary.

When the Judiciary Committee began the confirmation hearing on this Supreme Court nomination, and when the Senate this week began its debate, I recounted an insight from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which is often quoted by President Obama:  “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
 
It is distinctively American to continually refine our Union, moving us closer to our ideals.  Our Union is not yet perfected, but with this confirmation we will be making progress.
 
Years from now, we will remember this time, when we crossed paths with the quintessentially American journey of Sonia Sotomayor and when our Nation took another step forward through this historic confirmation process.  
 
I urge each Senator to honor our oath, our Constitution and our national promise by voting his or her conscience on the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to serve as a Justice of the United States Supreme Court.  

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