When President Barack Obama nominated Justice Sonia Sotomayor a year ago, the debate surrounding her confirmation included a wide array of scrutiny. Some of the items of discussion were more relevant and more substantive than others.
As the US Supreme Court’s first Latina, third female, and first Type 1 Diabetic to serve on the bench, the greatest amount of focus seemed to fall upon her non-legal, personal history. Particularly, as this blog has noted, the confirmation hearings concentrated on whether that personal history and her self-identified “Wise Latina”-ness would enhance or detract from her ability to effectively and fairly “say what the law is.”
Nearly a year after her confirmation, the evaluation of the Wise Latina’s first session as a Justice has already begun. But what if, a year later, we approached the discussion concerning her role on the Court from another direction? Instead of a debate centered only on Justice Sotomayor’s specific job performance, the discussion might also include the value that comes from choosing a role model that can inspire the underrepresented within the legal community.
A 2003 ABA study found that women comprise only 29.7% of all lawyers, and their presence in the judiciary is even more inequitable: of US Circuit Court judges—20.1%, of US District Court judges—19.2%, and on state courts (of last resort)—26.3%. A similar 2000 ABA study shows that among judges, magistrates, and other judicial employees, the make-up of minorities is as follows: Hispanics—4.5%, Blacks—8.8%, Asians—1.6%. Unsurprisingly, these statistics are unbalanced compared to the figures on US population by race and ethnicity, and they are bleak compared to the statistics on incarceration.
Assuming our society values a legal community that more closely resembles the greater population, where does that more representative panoply begin? Every legal professional has a personal narrative that includes his or her reason for choosing such a career. For a great majority of us, it starts with example. It is extremely powerful to actually witness that someone like you—someone who may share similar characteristics or personal history—can succeed professionally.
As a Latina entering my second year of law school, I find myself inspired by Justice Sotomayor’s career. Raised by a single parent, I grew up below the poverty-line in Southern California among a rapidly growing Hispanic community. Something felt familiar as I became acquainted with Justice Sotomayor’s story. According to her official biography, she is the daughter of Puerto Rican parents, grew up in a South Bronx housing project, and after her father’s death when she was eight, she was raised by her mother, a nurse.
The confidence I have that I can complete law school and have a successful legal career is not limited to one particular person or opportunity. But I can testify to the profound inspiration that comes from seeing a well-qualified, confident woman of color, who came from a somewhat similar set of obstacles, hold a position of prestige in the very same professional community I seek to join.
On June 28, Judge Elena Kagan’s confirmation begins. Naturally, I am hoping that her hearing will include a substantive and thorough discussion of her professional credentials. I am also hoping, though, that part of the discourse includes the value of having more female and minority role models in positions of power in the legal community.
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