Today in 2009: Sonia Sotomayor is sworn in as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

August 8, 2014

Today in Legal History

President Obama’s tenure in the nation’s highest political office will end in just over two years.  As with every president, however, he will leave behind many legacies that will far outlast his own time in office.

While many supporters and detractors will point to any of the laws passed during Obama’s time as president as making the largest lasting impact, the truth is that very few, if any, laws passed under a president’s watch are as enduring and transformative as his judicial selections.

After all, the judges that are selected by the president typically not only remain in office long after the president, but their rulings may help shape the law long after the judges themselves have retired.

And five years ago today, one of President Obama’s largest lasting legacies was firmly cemented through the swearing in of his Supreme Court nominee, Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Sotomayor faced some notable, but not terribly significant, resistance during the confirmation process, primarily as a result of a statement she made during a 2001 lecture at Berkeley Law:  “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

Although Sotomayor repeated distanced herself from those comments during the hearings, it was the single largest point of contention among her critics.  Today, it seems mostly forgotten.   Conversely, another major criticism faced by Sotomayor during her confirmation from pro-life hecklers over her views on abortion continues to persist to this day, at least among those groups concerned with the issue.

Sotomayor’s swearing in on August 8, 2009, made her the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, and the third woman appointed to the high court.  Of course, the milestone of nominating the first Hispanic justice won’t be Obama’s most notable lasting legacy found in Justice Sotomayor.  Rather, it will be the impact that she has on U.S. jurisprudence over her tenure, likely to be decades long considering her age when she was sworn in (55).

Sonia SotomayorSince I’ve already gone into detail about Sotomayor’s judicial philosophy in last summer’s Supreme Court justice profile series, I’ll refrain from repeating myself too much here.  However, in the term that occurred since the post was originally published, Sotomayor has stayed largely true to form, with the majority of her votes siding with the rest of the liberal bloc and opposing them on a seemingly random assortment of issues.  Notably, Sotomayor sided with Native American rights in this May’s Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community, even going as far as writing a separate concurrence strongly advocating for tribal sovereign immunity.   From all indications, we can expect Sotomayor to follow similar trends in future terms.

Considering that Sotomayor only turned 60 this year, and that there are justices approaching or exceeding 80 years of age still serving on the Court with no apparent plans to retire anytime soon, Sotomayor likely has many future terms ahead of her.

Her tenure will outlast not only President Obama’s, but likely another four to six presidents after him.  And the impact of her decisions will continue to shape U.S. jurisprudence long after she herself has left the Court.