May 27th 2009

The Politics of Sotomayor

by Dylan Loewe

Dylan is a regular op-ed contributor for The Guardian

This morning President Obama announced Second Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor as his nominee to replace Justice David Souter on the United States Supreme Court. In his press conference unveiling the choice, Obama described Sotomayor as an inspiring woman with a distinguished career, holding a "depth of experience and a breadth of perspective."

Though their numbers have dwindled in the Senate, the Republican party is not entirely devoid of options to block the nomination. Sotomayor will first need approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee before she can be voted on by the entire Senate. Though a majority vote is usually all that's required for a committee to advance a bill to the floor of the Senate, an obscure rule requires that judicial appointments be approved by a majority that includes at least one member of the minority party. In the case of Sotomayor, that means she'll need one Republican member of Judiciary to vote her to the floor.

That might draw excitement from conservative activists, but it's not likely that Sotomayor will lose a party-line vote of the judiciary committee. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), a key Republican vote on the committee, has already suggested an unwillingness to block the nomination. And Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), another Republican member of the committee, has already voted to confirm Sotomayor once before (for the Second Circuit eleven years ago) making it unlikely he'll oppose her this time. By the time she makes it to the floor of the Senate, Al Franken will likely have been seated in Minnesota, providing the Democrats with a 60 vote, filibuster-proof majority. At that point, and without the filibuster option, Republicans will be powerless to prevent Sotomayor's confirmation.

Still, the GOP is angling for a fight. Among the few who graced Obama's short list, Sotomayor was largely considered the most progressive of the bunch. But as the Republican leadership gears up, they may be walking squarely into another political trap, carefully designed by the president. Should she be confirmed, Sotomayor will be the first Hispanic on the bench, chosen at a time when the Hispanic vote has emerged as a critical component to sustaining a Democratic majority over the long-term.

Already in 2008, Hispanic voters, who represent the fastest growing minority population in the country, were responsible for a dramatic political realignment. In the wake of an anti-immigrant nativism that came to define the Republican presidential nominating contests, Obama won two-thirds of the Hispanic vote, fourteen points higher than John Kerry's share four years earlier. That meant wins in states like New Mexico and Colorado, Nevada and Florida, and it meant an insurmountable electoral margin for Obama. The president recognizes that if the Democratic party can turn Hispanic voters into a loyal bloc of supporters, they can continue to expand their margins around the country, even in places as conservative as Texas, driven almost entirely by Hispanic population growth.

Will nominating the first Hispanic justice to the high court further Obama's courtship of the Hispanic community? It certainly can't hurt, though it's hard to imagine that it alone will do the job. But Obama may stand to gain more, not from corralling a majority of Democrats to vote in favor of Sotomayor, but from inspiring the most virulent elements of the Republican party to oppose her.

The Republican leadership has already indicated that they view the fight over Obama's Supreme Court nominee as a good opportunity to unify their base and that, among those on the short list, they were most eager to go after Sotomayor. But if they follow through, if they do decide to spend the next two and half months waging an impossible fight against a nominee whose confirmation is all but guaranteed, they may cause permanent damage. If the Hispanic community abandons the Republican party altogether, the Republican party can abandon any hope of regaining power in American politics.

Besides, Sotomayor is not that easily assailable. While her credentials are undeniably liberal, she was originally nominated to the federal bench by President George H.W. Bush. She has top notch academic credentials, having attending Princeton and Yale Law School, and has more experience on the federal bench than any nominee to the bench in the last half century.

Still Republicans have made a sport out of fighting unwinnable political fights to their detriment. It's the bread and butter of their new brand of politics.

Over the coming months, it would be unwise to expect anything less.

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