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Sotomayor holds potential impact

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David Broder
August 9, 2009
— When Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was explaining his decision to become one of the nine Republicans to support the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor, he said it was made easier because she would not alter the ideological balance on the Supreme Court. Having her replace Justice David Souter, a regular member of the liberal bloc, would not tilt the court further in that direction, he said.

With all due respect to a senator I very much admire, I think he may underestimate the impact of having Sotomayor on the high court.


Certainly, there is a world of difference in personality between the taciturn New Englander who recently retired and the feisty New Yorker who will replace him. Souter was well-liked by his colleagues, but there is little evidence that he tried hard to influence them.


In any group as small as the nine-member Supreme Court, the departure of one person and the arrival of a very different one likely will alter the dynamics.


It is clearly the case that the two women who preceded Sotomayor on the court, Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, have had an outsized impact on their colleagues—and on the course of the law.


Ginsburg has been the most outspoken member of the liberal bloc, delivering some blistering dissents from the bench and speaking in a way that has inspired action from her soul mates in the political branches. O’Connor, who broke the gender line when President Ronald Reagan picked her, managed to become the swing vote—the ultimate decision-maker—on a wide variety of issues of historic consequence.


These two were much on the mind of Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota Democrat who organized a pair of floor presentations by women senators on behalf of Sotomayor—one when the judge was first nominated and the second just as the confirmation debate neared an end.


Much has been made—and rightly so—of the fact that Sotomayor will be the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court. But for women, too, this is an important moment.


As Klobuchar recalled, it is only recently that women gained professional status within the legal profession. When O’Connor graduated third in her class from Stanford Law School, “the only offers she got from law firms … (were) for legal secretary positions. … Her accomplishments (were) reduced to one question: Can she type?”


And, Klobuchar said, when Ginsburg “entered Harvard Law School, she was one of only nine women in a class of more than 500. The dean of the law school actually demanded she justify why she deserved a seat that could have gone to a man.”


Klobuchar, who is in her first term as a senator, previously served as the county attorney, or prosecutor, in Minnesota’s most populous county. That gave her a bond with Sotomayor, whose first job out of law school was as a prosecutor in New York.


Klobuchar made vivid what that experience might now bring to the Supreme Court.


“As a prosecutor,” she said, “after you have interacted with victims of crime, after you have seen the damage that crime does to individuals and to our communities, after you have seen defendants who are going to prison and you know their families are losing them, sometimes forever, you know the law is not just an abstract subject. It is not just a dusty book in the basement. The law has a real impact on the real lives of real people.”


When I asked Klobuchar after the confirmation vote why she had organized the women senators to speak up for Sotomayor, she said, “She is only the third of 111 justices in our history, and we are only 17 of 100 senators. It is important we stand together and recognize that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, so slowly but surely, we can expand our place in the world.”


That expansion is one of the most welcome changes I have seen in politics and government in my lifetime—and just an augury of what is coming next.


David Broder is a columnist for The Washington Post. Readers may write to him via e-mail at davidbroder@washpost.com.

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