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ANALYSIS: Sotomayor can relate to those whose cases set precedents

Friday, August 7, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

WASHINGTON — Justice Sonia Sotomayor will bring something new to the Supreme Court, far beyond her being its first Hispanic member.

Her background and experiences undoubtedly will affect her thinking and influence her decisions, but they probably will do so in ways that were hardly mentioned during her confirmation hearings.

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She will be the only justice whose first language was not English. She spoke Spanish at home as a child, and she will join a court that enforces a federal law that calls for equal opportunity in schools for children who do not speak English.

She has been diabetic since childhood, a medical condition that is classified as a disability under the federal law that forbids discrimination against persons with physical or mental impairments.

Disability-rights advocates recently have suffered some big defeats in the court, and they have high hopes for her.

"We're very excited. We don't feel we have had a champion on the current court," said Andrew Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities.

She was raised in a city housing project where drugs and crime were more common than Ivy League scholarly success. Sotomayor refers to herself proudly as an "affirmative-action baby," having been admitted to Princeton University with less than stellar SAT scores but who nonetheless graduated with highest honors.

She will "change the conversation on affirmative action" within the court, says University of Maryland law professor Sherrilyn Ifill. The only other minority on the court, Justice Clarence Thomas, is a staunch foe, maintaining that affirmative-action policies taint the accomplishments of all minorities.

"Her story of how hard she worked to graduate first in her class from Princeton makes her really the poster child for the benefits of affirmative action," Ifill said.

Sotomayor is also a divorced woman with no children but a close relationship with an extended family.

"She is a modern woman with a nontraditional family," said Sylvia Lazos, a law professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. "She is much more reflective of contemporary American society than the other justices like Alito and Roberts."

She was referring to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., both of whom are married and have two children. The court soon is expected to face a series of cases involving the legal rights of other nontraditional families with same-sex couples.

Even her personal finances look more like contemporary America. According to friends, Sotomayor has struggled to pay her mortgage and her credit card bills, and her financial disclosures show she has no substantial savings or stock portfolio.

Before becoming a judge, she served on a New York board that strictly enforced the city's campaign finance laws, but she will be joining a court whose conservative justices are skeptical of limiting the role of money in politics.

And unlike any other current justice, she has tried cases as a prosecutor and presided over trials as judge. Friends say those experiences shaped her view of the law and judging, giving her an up-close look at how the criminal justice system works. By contrast, most of the justices have spent their careers as law professors, government lawyers and appellate judges, all at least one step one removed from actual trials.

"She is intensely focused on the facts, not the ideology," said Los Angeles lawyer Nancy Gray, who worked with Sotomayor as prosecutor in New York. "In the criminal system, you often see the worst in people, the damage that crime does to victims and their families, and the revolving door of people coming through the system. She is acutely aware of all that."

Until now, most of the debate involving Sotomayor has focused on her ethnicity and gender.

After Justice Thurgood Marshall retired, several justices, including Sandra Day O'Connor and Byron White, wrote that the first black justice had a powerful influence through the stories he told in private conferences. As a young lawyer, he traveled throughout the South to represent black defendants who often faced a white prosecutor, a white judge and all-white jury. If his white colleagues had not thought much about how race could infect the criminal justice system, Marshall made sure they understood.

 

No one suggests that Sotomayor will transform the court or prompt the veteran justices to shift their views dramatically. But on issues such as immigration, drugs, housing, criminal sentences, sex discrimination and anti-trust law, Sotomayor figures to bring a fresh perspective to the court's debates.

Her diabetes and daily insulin shots were not much discussed during the hearings, but her experience is bound to influence her views, some lawyers say.

"She may be a strong voice for access to health care," Lazos said. "She will be a real player in the debates over what is a disability."


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