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Judge Sotomayor Q&A: What will Sotomayor bring to the Supreme Court?

Wake Forest University School of Law professors weigh in on the impact Second Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor will have on the U.S. Supreme Court as its newest justice. This is the first in a series of faculty discussions regarding current legal topics.

Wake Forest University School of Law professors weigh in on the impact Second Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor will have on the U.S. Supreme Court as its newest justice. This is the first in a series of faculty discussions regarding current legal topics.

On May 26, President Obama announced his designation of Second Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor to succeed retiring Justice David Souter on the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Senate hearings to consider the nomination of Judge Sotomayor to be an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court began on July 13 and she was confirmed by a 68-31 vote as the first Latina justice and only the third woman on Aug. 6.

Sotomayor, who rose from humble beginnings in a Bronx housing project, served as an assistant district attorney in New York City and in private practice before being confirmed to the federal District Court in 1992. In 1998, she was confirmed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Her public record has been subject to analysis since her name emerged as one of the leading contenders to replace Justice David Souter.

With more court experience than any of the other sitting justices, what will Judge Sonia Sotomayor bring to the high court?

Professor Ron Wright

Ron Wright

Executive Associate Dean for Academic Affairs; Professor of Law

We have nine Supreme Court justices for a reason. We want nine individuals; we don’t want nine cookie cutter people, so it’s a good thing if she brings something different. Obviously, her being a woman and the first Hispanic justice is a major contributor to that. There’s life experience and there’s legal experience, and on the life experience side those are very compelling appealing things that she can add to the court. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said something pretty interesting about being a woman on the court. In a recent case the court just decided Safford v. Redding. It’s a school case involving the strip-searching of a 13-year-old girl. Ginsburg said I’m not so sure my colleagues understood that a 13-year-old girl might experience this in a way that’s different than a 13-year-old boy. It’s the kind of thing that comes up in every case where if there’s a justice on the court who can connect life experience-wise, the court as an institution is stronger. For life experience purposes, I think she’s got a lot to add.

I, myself, am more excited about the legal experience that she brings to the court because, unlike any of her colleagues, she has been a state prosecutor, not just a prosecutor but a state system prosecutor. She was a prosecutor in the famous Manhattan prosecutor’s office of Robert Morgenthau. The reason that’s important is because most of what the Supreme Court does is look over the shoulder of the state criminal justice system. When they are making up rules and giving guidance to those in the system, she’s the one person on the court who will be able to say this is how it really goes and this is how those folks are going to react. Her experience as a state prosecutor for me is the most important thing she’ll be bringing to the court. She will really add a lot to one of the major docket areas. She’s been a U.S. District Court judge. That means in our system she’s been a sentencing judge with a set of very complicated rules, called the sentencing guidelines, and it’s a big part of the Supreme Court’s docket and one of my specialties. She is the only justice who would have sentenced people under the U.S. sentencing guidelines. Justice Samuel Alito, who I think has a lot in common with Justice Sotomayor, was a federal prosecutor and is very familiar with the rules, but she’s the only one who will have sentencing experience and she has developed quite a centrist record on sentencing on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

Professor Suzanne Reynolds

Suzanne Reynolds

Professor of Law

Her experience as a woman of color gives her a deeper appreciation of what discrimination means than any white person in this country could ever have. When she is interpreting the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, she will have an appreciation for what it means to be discriminated against more than any white person could have. When she is interpreting Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act and part of the issue is what it means to be discriminated against, she has a depth and breadth of understanding that you’d have to be a part of that group really to have the depth of appreciation of discrimination that she’ll bring to the bench.

Professor Sid Shapiro

Sid Shapiro

Associate Dean for Research and Development; University Distinguished Chair in Law

One would hope that if a person is appointed to the Supreme Court, she would have a great legal knowledge and experience. Judge Sotomayor obviously brings that with her and her long history of opinions and judging is an indication that she is going be a great judge. But in addition to that, judges, as the name implies, bring judgment and part of judging the law is trying to figure out exactly how it should come out. For that she not only has vast legal experience, but her life experience will bear on that issue.

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