In his first opportunity to influence the direction of the United States Supreme Court, President Barack Obama has emphasized diversity and experience over politics and ideology. By nominating Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic - and the third woman - to the nation's highest bench, Obama has signaled his recognition that personal stories influence jurisprudence regardless of their narrative. And in choosing a nominee whose story differs from the vast majority of Supreme Court justices throughout history, he hopes to make more robust the debates and decisions issued by the court.
As the confirmation process unfolds, there will be a thorough examination of Sotomayor's judicial record, as well as her personal history. Both of these backgrounds are important to consider when deciding on a lifelong appointment to the panel of judges charged with interpreting the U.S. Constitution. But that process should not be a free-for-all involving gender or ethnic stereotypes that overlook Sotomayer's significant judicial experience. Her critics - or, perhaps more relevantly, those of Obama - are already treading dangerously close to making what should be an intellectual and exhaustive inquiry an embarrassingly simple insult spree.
Sotomayor grew up in a Bronx housing project with her brother and widowed mother who worked two jobs to keep the family afloat. She then went on to Princeton University for college and Yale for law school. That education surely provided a stark contrast to her humble upbringing, as did her ensuing career as a prosecutor and corporate litigator before becoming a judge - first handling trials, and most recently, on the appeals court where she has been for more than a decade. Taken together, Sotomayor's experiences both as a person and a jurist appear to give her a broad and deep reservoir from which to draw legal conclusions.
It is the apparent trend of those on both ends of the political spectrum to expect judges at all levels to apply the law blindly - without influence that comes from outside the legal framework. While that may be a worthy ideal to aspire to, it overlooks the fundamentals of the human condition: Experience shapes decisions - and vice versa. Accordingly, it makes sense to gather as broad a range of experiences as is practical and possible to make the decisions that affect a broad spectrum of American citizens. Recognizing that personal history is at least a factor - if not a significant one - in judicial decision-making is an important step, and one that Sotomayor has taken.
She has already been criticized for it. Wendy Long, a spokeswoman for the conservative Judicial Confirmation Network, said Sotomayor's background will trump fairness. "Judge Sotomayor will allow her feelings and personal politics to stand in the way of basic fairness," Long said. That accusation oversimplifies what Sotomayor herself has said about the interrelationship between the personal and the legal.
"...the aspiration to impartiality is just that - it's an aspiration because it denies the fact that we are by our experiences making different choices than others. Not all women or people of color, in all or some circumstances or indeed in any particular case or circumstance but enough people of color in enough cases, will make a difference in the process of judging," Sotomayor said in a 2002 speech at the University of California at Berkeley. In striving to craft a bench that reflects the broadest range of experience - in addition to the most prestigious collection of legal minds - Obama will serve the American people, and their Constitution, well.
Sotomayor's nomination is an intriguing one and the confirmation process will be equally so.