President Obama has made his first Supreme Court pick, Appeals Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor. And it's a great choice.
The one point that Republicans have is that her compelling personal story-- raised by a single mother in a tenement in the Bronx and doing well enough in school to earn her own way into Princeton University-- is irrelevant to how qualified she is as a judge.
So let's focus on how qualified she is as a judge. The answer is very. Academically, there is no question about her intellect. Sotomayor graduated Summa cum Laude, at the top of her class at Princeton. Then she went on to Yale Law School and earned her law degree.
After school she earned a reputation as a tough and effective prosecutor, which led to her appointment to the federal bench eighteen years ago by President George H.W. Bush. Later she was appointed to the second circuit court by President Clinton, and has served on that court-- one step below the Supreme Court for more than a decade.
Conservatives tried to kneecap Sotomayor early on in the process. They sent hitman Jeffrey Rosen, who wrote a scathing critique, all based on 'anonymous sources.' Those anonymous sources questioned her intelligence, apparently following after Karl Rove's tactics of attacking someone's strength first. Only Rosen failed miserably, since he couldn't find anyone willing to put their name on the record so it ends up looking like a bunch of unsubstantiated innuendo. For all you can tell, Rosen's 'anonymous source' might have been himself.
They will bring up Sotomayor's comments in the past suggesting that judicial decisions should also be made with a view as to their impact on those directly affected and on others. This is a good thing however. As a baseball fan, I am grateful that Sotomayor considered the interests of fans and of the public when she issued a ruling in 1995 to force players and owners back to the negotiating table. Baseball, as I've noted on several occasions, still has not recovered as "America's pastime" (in third place in most measures of fan popularity behind football and basketball, and not all that far ahead of NASCAR.) Sotomayor is the reason why baseball resumed in 1995 at all, and in retrospect it is clear that she made the right decision.
They will likely bring up the case of Ricci vs. DiStefano, the New Haven, CT case in which the results of a test were thrown out by the city. Conservatives are criticizing Sotomayor for being a member of a three judge panel which sided with the city and ruled against the plaintiff. However, the fact that the case even worked its way up to the second circuit should be proof that it was never the slam-dunk case conservatives seem to believe to begin with, so if she doesn't agree with them then she is not the first. I doubt it will be a unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court either (though it will be interesting to see how David Souter casts his vote on the case.) If Sotomayor and her colleagues on the panel can be faulted it is for not being more explicit in their opinion, but not forgoing a lengthy opinion in a case which is decided by a panel is by no means unusual (and the justice who penned the opinion in the case was one of the other panel members anyway.)
As far as her position on the court, keep in mind that Souter is considered part of the court's liberal wing anyway. We have essentially a 4-1-4 split on the court-- four liberals, four conservatives and Anthony Kennedy the guy everyone is trying to convince. The only way that Sotomayor really helps the liberal wing is that we are replacing Souter, a guy who hated every minute of his work on the Supreme Court, with a justice who is enthusiastic about the opportunity and at 54 will probably be on the court for a long time. The two justices with serious health issues, Justices Stevens and Ginsburg, remain on the court.
In fact, while Sotomayor is certainly liberal on many issues, she isn't necessarily always liberal. In her only ruling on abortion in fact, she backed the Bush administration's anti-abortion stance in dismissing the suit on the part of abortion rights groups to force the administration to reverse the so-called 'Mexico City rule' and provide funds for foreign organizations that counseled abortion. Sotomayor ruled on the case in 2002 that the government had the freedom to direct U.S. funds to or not to foreign interests. In another ruling that is at odds with liberal orthodoxy she struck down a law used by the city of White Plains, NY to ban religious displays in a city park. So clearly she will have a few surprises in store, though I expect that she will probably be about as liberal as David Souter was (a justice who surprised his Republican backers twenty years ago.)
On the other hand, I don't want a pure doctrinaire liberal either. I want someone who thinks things through and one hallmark of that is occasional unpredictability. All in all, I am very happy with President Obama's choice.