Hispanics push Obama for a Supreme Court seat

There's never been a Hispanic on the high court though they're 15 percent of the US population.

The US Supreme Court in Washington.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus was so eager to see President Obama nominate the first Hispanic to the US Supreme Court, its top leaders sent a letter urging him to do so two days before Justice David Souter announced his retirement.

A spokesman for the caucus says the timing of the letter is a coincidence. But the sense that this is the Latino community’s “moment for justice” is not.

Various groups are agitating for Mr. Obama’s attention as he contemplates his first high-court vacancy – and the first for a Democratic president in 15 years. Gay rights groups are putting spokespeople on cable TV, arguing for the first openly gay justice. Women’s groups say that having only one woman on a court of nine is woefully inadequate. And Hispanics argue that they’re long overdue for a Supreme Court seat, noting they now make up 15 percent of the US population.

Hispanics supported Obama last November over GOP nominee John McCain by more than 2 to 1 – 67 percent to 31 percent – after backing then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton over Obama in the Democratic primaries by a similar margin.

“This notion that Latinos would not vote for a black candidate turned out not to be true,” says a Latino activist. “They supported Obama enthusiastically last November. Now I think the community overall feels that [a Supreme Court nomination] is owed to them.”

One name floated since long before Justice Souter’s announcement is that of Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, who is of Puerto Rican descent.

Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D) of New York, chairwoman of the Hispanic caucus, put out a separate statement after Souter’s announcement on May 1 noting that there are “a number of qualified candidates,” but citing only Judge Sotomayor by name.

Of all the names mentioned thus far, Sotomayor seems to have the largest social network organized on her behalf. The Facebook group “Sonia Sotomayor for US Supreme Court Justice” has more than 1,500 members.

Part of the swirl around Sotomayor stems from critical coverage she has received, including a parody of her that aired earlier this week on CBS’s “Late Show with David Letterman,” which some analysts saw as including racist and sexist stereotypes.

Perhaps more damaging to her prospects is a videotape that has surfaced of remarks she made at Duke University in 2005, when she said the “Court of Appeals is where policy is made.” Then she caught herself: “I know, I know this is on tape, and I should never say that.” Conservatives are highlighting the comment as evidence she is a “judicial activist,” seeking to legislate from the bench.

Hispanic groups eager to see one of their own reach the court suggest several women. In addition to Sotomayor, they mention Maria Rivera, who serves on the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit; Vanessa Ruiz, from the D.C. Court of Appeals; Martha Vasquez, from the US District Court in New Mexico; and Kim McLane Wardlaw, who serves on the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

But if Obama seriously pursues his goal of nominating someone from a “nontraditional” but high-profile background – i.e., not a sitting judge – potentially qualified Hispanic women are harder to find than Hispanic men. Some men who have been mentioned include Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey.

For Obama, the push to nominate a Hispanic justice carries risks.

“If he moves to nominate a Latino, that will definitely generate interest and excitement in the Latino community,” says Matt Barreto, a political scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle, who just conducted a national poll of Latino voters showing 81 percent job approval for Obama. But if that nominee does not make it to the court, “there could be a let-down.”

Mr. Barreto’s poll shows that the top issue of concern, by far, for Latino voters is the economy (56 percent), followed by immigration reform (12 percent). Gaining a seat on the Supreme Court does not appear on the list, though the poll was taken before Souter’s retirement was announced.

If Obama is concerned about maintaining Hispanic support for a reelection bid, improving the economy and pushing for comprehensive immigration reform would take priority.

But, says Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), “if the economy doesn’t turn around, immigration stalls, and he doesn’t put a Latino on the Supreme Court, I can see an outright problem for him come the next election cycle.”

For now, though, Mr. Wilkes is happy with the kind of access Hispanic leaders have to the Obama White House, though he is reluctant to discuss the full list of potential justices he'd like to see considered. “The Obama administration doesn’t seem to like to have stuff aired publicly,” says Wilkes.

Gabriela Lemus, president of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, believes the Hispanic community has come a long way in understanding the value of judicial representation.

“People know judges can’t just be brown; they need qualifications and sensitivity to the challenges facing the Latino community,” she says. And, she adds, the need goes far beyond the Supreme Court: Only 4 percent of all federal judges are of Hispanic descent.

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