August 06, 2009

NOMINATION OF JUDGE SONIA SOTOMAYOR TO BE ASSOCIATE JUSTICE OF THE SUPREME COURT

The confirmation of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to be an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court will be my first Supreme Court Justice confirmation vote as a Senator. It is an honor for me to represent the people of Maryland in the United States Senate and to serve on the Judiciary Committee.

 

I particularly want to thank Chairman Leahy and Ranking Member Sessions for the dignified manner in which the Committee handled the nomination process of Judge Sotomayor.   Each Senator on our committee had ample time to review Judge Sotomayor's background and ask questions of the nominee. Her answers were as responsive as possible and gave me confidence that she understood the appropriate role of a judge in applying the law.

 

The Supreme Court, our Nation's highest court, holds a tremendous responsibility in deciding cases on fundamental issues that have real impacts on the lives of Americans.   In recent years, we have seen less of a consensus on the Court, with many 5-4. Regrettably, too many of these decisions have been times when the Court has ignored congressional intent and precedent to instead move forward with its own agenda. It has been the so-called conservative justices that have been the most active in ignoring the intent of Congress in protecting individual rights.

 

 For example, in the Ledbetter decision , the court denied women a remedy against employer discrimination in pay equity cases, thus eliminating protection intended by Congress.   In the Riverkeeper decision and the Rapanos decisions, the Supreme Court narrowed the Congressional protections for clean water.  In the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District decision, the Court challenged congressional authority to the Voting Rights Act itself.   In each of these cases the Supreme Court actively ruled to restrict laws passed by Congress to protect individual rights.  I want the next Justice to respect legal precedent and congressional intent and advance -- not restrict -- individual rights.        

 

In determining whether or not to support Judge Sotomayor for this lifetime appointment, I looked at several factors.   First, I believe judicial nominees must have an appreciation for the Constitution and the protections it provides to each and every American.    I also believe each nominee must embrace a judicial philosophy that reflects mainstream American values, not narrow ideological interests.   I believe a judicial nominee must respect the role and responsibilities of each branch of government.    I look for a strong commitment and passion for the continued forward progress of civil rights protections.    I understand that there is a careful balance to be found here: our next Justice should advance the protections found in our Constitution, but not disregard important precedent that has made our society stronger by embracing our civil liberties. I believe Judge Sotomayor understands this balance and will apply these principles appropriately.

 

During the hearing, we all learned more about Judge Sotomayor's approach to the law and to judging. She clearly outlined for us her fidelity to the law, respect for precedent, and due deference to the intent of Congress.   With each question, our Committee and the American public gained a greater appreciation of Judge Sotomayor's knowledge of and commitment to the rule of the law.

 

Her command of legal precedent and her ability to challenge attorneys in their arguments will bode well for reaching the right decisions in the Supreme Court of the United States. She is mainstream in her judicial decisions and opinions and she possesses a correct sense of the role of a judge in deciding a case based on sound legal precedent and the facts, giving due deference to Congressional intent.

Over the past few months our Committee has had time to thoroughly review Judge Sotomayor's record.   From the moment she was nominated by President Obama, we knew that Judge Sotomayor had a strong background including extensive experience as a prosecutor, trial judge and appellate judge.   She grew up in modest circumstances, worked hard to attend two of our nation's most prestigious universities- Princeton and Yale Law School -- and she excelled at the highest levels at each institution.   Judge Sotomayor's lifelong work ethic has been recognized by both Democratic and Republican presidents who nominated her for Senate-confirmed judicial appointments and for 17 years she has been a distinguished jurist.  

 

Judge Sotomayor is an example of a highly competent and experienced nominee.    She has more federal judicial experience than any Supreme Court nominee in the last hundred years; she was rated "well qualified" by the American Bar Association, which is the highest rating given by the ABA; and has been supported by the National Fraternal Order of Police, the NAACP, the United States Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Women Lawyers, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and many, many more.  

 

The nine justices of the United States Supreme Court have the tremendous responsibility of safeguarding the framers' intent and the fundamental  values of our Constitution, while ensuring the protections and rights found in that very Constitution are applied to and relevant to the issues of the day. It is my belief that the Constitution and Bill of Rights were created to be timeless documents that stand together as the foundation for the rule of law in our nation.  

 

Were it not possible for the Supreme Court to apply the basic tenets of the Constitution to changing times, moving beyond popular sentiment, our Nation would never had made the progress it has, improving society for the better.  When the Constitution was written, African Americans were considered property and counted only as three-fifths of a person.   Non-whites and women were not allowed to vote. Individuals were restricted by race as to whom they could marry.   Decisions by the Supreme Court undeniably have moved our country forward, continuing the progression of Constitutional protections.   I believe Judge Sotomayor's record and background demonstrates that she understands these principles and that she will apply sound legal precedent to contemporary challenges advancing individual rights.

 

During the confirmation hearing, I spent the majority of my time questioning Judge Sotomayor on the topic of civil rights. We discussed the right to vote, women's rights, minority rights - including race and gender issues - the environment, and the importance of diversity in the Courts and throughout our society.    While difficult questions will continue to come before the Court, for me, it bears repeating just how important it is to have justices on the Supreme Court who will apply established precedent and are not tempted to turn back the clock on landmark Court decisions that protect individual constitutional rights.   

 

I gained great confidence in Judge Sotomayor after listening to her answer the questions that I posed.   I want to mention a few of the key cases decided by her that we discussed at the hearing.   Judge Sotomayor has protected the civil rights of all Americans, advanced equal opportunity and promoted racial justice. In Gant case, she protected the rights of a young African American student who was treated differently than his fellow white classmates; in the Boykin case, she looked at the facts presented and reversed and remanded the case because the facts did present a plausible claim of disparate treatment in a housing application process.

 

 Judge Sotomayor has also shown an understanding of privacy rights. While we do not have cases to review that she participated in, her responses to questions gave me great confidence that she will respect legal precedent while applying privacy protections to challenges presented in the 21 st Century.

 

I have confidence that Judge Sotomayor understands the importance of protecting the freedom of speech, based on the decision she reached in the Pappas case, where an off duty police officer used speech that was repugnant, but her ruling showed an understanding in the importance of Constitutional protections, even when such speech is unpopular and hateful.    

 

I have confidence that Judge Sotomayor will protect religious freedom based on her decision in the Ford case, where she protected the rights of a Muslim prison inmate.  

 

I was particularly impressed by Judge Sotomayor's record on voting rights.   In the Hayden case, she wrote in a dissent, "The duty of a judge is to follow the law, not to question its plain terms. I do not believe that Congress wishes us to disregard the plain language of any statute or to invent exceptions to the statues it has created."   Her commitment on voting rights was solidified at the hearing when she responded to a question I posed. She acknowledged unequivocally that the right to vote is a 'fundamental right' for all Americans. With current Justices on the court ready to question Congress's right to extend the basic voting protections in the Voting Rights Act, it is refreshing to hear Judge Sotomayor say in the Hayden case, "I trust that Congress would prefer to make any needed changes itself rather than have the courts do so for it."  

 

I have great confidence that Judge Sotomayor understands the importance of civil rights in our country and importance of protecting those rights for the American people.

 

I believe that Judge Sotomayor will defend Congress's intent with the passage of the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and many others, based on her decision in the Riverkeeper case. In this case she wrote for a unanimous panel and held that under the Clean Water Act, the EPA could not engage in a cost-benefit analysis.   Allowing cost-benefit analysis would undermine Congressional protections, when determining what constitutes the "best technology available for minimizing the adverse environmental impact." She concluded instead the test for compliance should consider "what technology can be reasonably borne by the industry and could engage in cost-effectiveness analysis in determining the [best technology available]."

 

In addition to her impressive legal background, Judge Sotomayor is on the verge of becoming the first Latina and only the third woman to serve on the Supreme Court.   Her story of personal success is an inspiration for young Latinos, women and for all Americans.   She is prepared and ready to serve our Nation on the Supreme Court where I am confident she will continue to build upon the outstanding record she has already achieved as a distinguished jurist.

 

For all these reasons and many more, I will vote to confirm Judge Sotomayor to be the next Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. I urge my colleagues to join in the support of her confirmation.