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Government, Politics & Issues

Former colleagues call Sotomayor 'wicked-smart' jurist

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 26, 2009 - When Sandra Johnson worked on a committee with Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor in 1995, they selected scholarship winners at New York University's School of Law. Johnson, a St. Louis University professor emerita of law, said the committee was "locked in a room" for six to eight hours --- a short but intense time.

"I really found (Sotomayor) to ask very insightful questions and to be a very good listener, very analytical," Johnson said. "She was able to ask harder questions, but she put people at ease."

President Barack Obama announced U.S. Appeals Court Judge Sotomayor's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday morning, and Sotomayor accepted the nomination at a White House ceremony.

At the time Johnson worked with Sotomayor on the scholarship nominees, the judge was working on the case of the strike by Major League Baseball players. As a result, Johnson, a baseball fan, looked forward to asking her about the case but because of time constraints, she couldn't. However, Johnson observed Sotomayor's work ethic during the interviews.

"She was really extraordinarily prepared, very efficient and very easy to deal with," Johnson said. "The experience I had with her made me confident that she'll be effective in oral arguments. I think people find how (justices) behave relevant."

From 2002 to 2003, Katherine Barnes worked as a law clerk for Sotomayor. Barnes, now an associate professor of law and director of the Rogers Program on Law and Society at the University of Arizona, reflected on her experiences with Sotomayor and what she'll bring to the Supreme Court.

"She's wicked smart," said Barnes, who taught at Washington University from 2003 to 2007. "She is one of the most driven people that I've met. She works hard at everything she does."

While a clerk under Sotomayor, Barnes saw cases that required straightforward applications of the law and some that required more analysis and time. When Sotomayor tackled the latter cases, she focused on what a certain law meant, Barnes said.

Sotomayor "thought deeply of what the right answer was and the practical implications of what she was saying," Barnes said.

Although Sotomayor never talked to Barnes about why she got into law, Barnes knew why Sotomayor served as a judge.

"She did feel a responsibility to help people in the community and to mentor other people becoming lawyers," Barnes said.

When asked if Sotomayor was fit to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, Barnes said, "Absolutely."

If Sotomayor is confirmed, she would become the first Hispanic justice of the Supreme Court. While Jorge Riopedre, president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis, does not personally know Sotomayor, he hailed her nomination -- not only because she is Hispanic but more importantly because of her background and experience.

"She has a uniquely American story -- being in the land of opportunity, overcoming personal adversity and making the best possible situation for herself while trying to help others," Riopedre said.

"It makes sense that the Supreme Court, one of the nation's most important institutions, should have at least one member who is Hispanic. I would not want her to be a Supreme Court justice just because of that. She is also qualified, and that makes her an excellent nominee."

Riopedre cited Census Bureau estimates that by the year 2050, the nation's Hispanic population is expected to be 30 percent. The addition of a Latina Supreme Court justice would help make the institution look more like the nation as a whole, he said.

"To a certain extent," he said, "Latinos are still trying to find their own political voice in this country. They are looking to see themselves more reflected in the federal government and in the judiciary, and to the extent that is true, this speaks volumes."

He also said that Sotomayor's life experience should lead to a more compassionate view on the court than some current justices have shown.

"I heard Judge Sotomayor say she would never lose sight of the real-world impact of the making of law and the deciding of law by the Supreme Court," he said. "To my mind, that makes her an excellent nominee. I'm very thrilled to hear her say something like that.

"In my personal opinion, the originalists and strict constructionists on the court are too married to the letter of the law, without understanding, as President Obama has said, that there is more to the law than the written page."

Joan Suarez, who chairs  the board of the Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates in St. Louis, says Sotomayor will fulfill the qualities that Obama had said he was looking for in Souter’s replacement.

“She is someone who understands the feel of the real world,” Suarez said. “That’s plain from her judicial record and her life as an individual.”

Looking ahead to Senate confirmation, Suarez added:

“There is going to be a conservative attempt to block her nomination, I’m sure, but I hope in the light of day it will be clear she is an excellent, excellent choice.”

Taking a broader look at the question of a Latino justice, when he was asked whether the day will come when the ethnicity of a court nominee will not or should not matter, Riopedre responded:

"That is one of the things you always strive for, but it's like the horizon: you strive for it, but will you ever reach it?"

Christian Losciale is an intern at the Beacon.

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