Sonia Sotomayor has ruled on only a limited number of cases directly involving the Jewish community or Jewish issues during her 17 years as a federal judge, but her record seems reassuring, according to legal experts and representatives of Jewish organizations.
President Barack Obama on Tuesday nominated Sotomayor, from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, to succeed Associate Justice David Souter, who is stepping down from the Supreme Court when its current session ends this summer.
“I have no idea where she stands on issues of interest to our community,” said Alan Dershowitz, professor of law at Harvard University and a prominent Jewish activist.
Dershowitz said he has presented cases before Sotomayor several times. “She impressed me as a careful, thoughtful, very well-prepared judge. She asked very hard questions. Lawyers like hard questions. I think it’s a good choice.”
Most people contacted by The Jewish Week said they cannot offer a balanced comment on Sotomayor’s record before her entire judicial record is examined during the Senate confirmation process, but are comfortable with what they have learned so far about her background.
“There are no red flags,” no indication in her judicial record that Sotomayor interprets law from a doctrinaire left-wing or right-wing perspective, or that she has taken positions that may be inimical to Jewish interests, said Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Congress. “She’s not stood out on our issues,” he said, referring to the quantity of Jewish-related cases on which she has issued decisions. “In general, she has not ruled on church-state issues.”
While Sotomayor has ruled on few controversial social issues like abortion rights, “she’s not a blank slate” in her wider experience at the 2nd Circuit, Stern said. “She’s got a long record, which people will be picking over endlessly” in the upcoming Senate hearings.
The Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs wrote on its blog this week that “an early survey” of the judge’s opinions “on religious liberty issues is very encouraging.”
The OU blog cited cases in which Sotomayor upheld the constitutional right of a rabbi to display a menorah in a city park, upheld the rights of prison inmates to wear multiple strands of beads under their clothes as part of the Santeria religion, upheld the right of a Muslim inmate to take part in an Islamic religious feast and, in a case of a 70-year-old minister fired by a Methodist church, recognized the importance of protecting religion from state interference.
In 2004, she and her 2nd Circuit colleagues unanimously affirmed the revocation of citizenship of Ukrainian-born Jack Reimer, who was accused of taking part in Nazi persecution of Jews during World War II.
“On the issues that affect Orthodox Jewish life the most, an initial look at her record is very, very positive,” said Nathan Diament, director of the Institute for Public Affairs. He cautioned that the institute, which disseminates relevant background information on judicial nominees, does not endorse or oppose candidates.
“She seems to have a firm commitment to the exercise of religious freedom and the appropriate limits that government places on the practice of religion,” Diament said.
“I think it’s a very promising choice — her experience is really quite impressive,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “She’s very strong on free exercise [of religion].”
“Clearly, she is more or less in classic terms a liberal, but she’s a centrist,” Pelavin said. “She has worked with judges all across the spectrum in forming a consensus.”
Sotamayor, a 54-year-old native of the Bronx who worked as a Manhattan assistant district attorney under Robert Morgenthau after graduating from Yale Law School, would become the first Hispanic member of the Supreme Court. She was named a U.S. District Court judge by President George H.W. Bush in 1992, and was promoted to the 2nd Circuit by President Bill Clinton.
Supporters say her bipartisan appointment history — Bush is Republican; Clinton, a Democrat — should guarantee backing from both parties in the Senate.
While in private practice in 1986, was joined a young leadership tour of Israel sponsored by the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange, visited Israel again in 1996 as a federal judge, and recently became part of a Project Interchange U.S.-Israel forum on immigration. “She enjoyed Israel not just from an intellectual perspective, she liked the music and the people,” said Paul Berger, husband of Project Interchange founder Debbie Berger.
While most observers said their early impressions of Sotomayor’s competence and experience are favorable, Washington attorney Nathan Lewin, who has often represented Jewish interests, called her a “mediocre” choice for the Supreme Court. “Her [written] opinions have been very run-of-the-mill.”
Lewin said he has appeared before Sotomayor at the 2nd Circuit a few times, none of which he can recall. “She does not stand out in my mind.”
But, he added, her consistent rulings in favor of religious freedom indicate that “she would be a very good justice.”
The National Jewish Democratic Council said, in a prepared statement, that Sotomayor is “committed to our constitutional values, right and liberties … has the intellectual capacity and real world experience to be a world class justice.”