President Obama today nominated federal judge Sonia Sotomayor of New York for the Supreme Court, positioning the longtime federal jurist to become the first Latino and only the third woman on the nation’s highest court.
Sotomayor became a judge on the federal district court for the Southern District of New York in 1991 and was elevated to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1998.
Sotomayor was born in Bronx, New York, to Puerto Rican parents. She grew up in a housing project in the South Bronx, a short walk from Yankee Stadium. She was diagnosed with diabetes at age 8. Her father, a tool-and-die worker with a third-grade education, died the following year. Her mother, Selena Sotomayor, a nurse, raised Sotomayor and her younger brother, Juan Sotomayor, who is now a doctor. Sotomayor has often stated that her mother is the one person that is her life inspiration. In 1976 Sotomayor married while still a student at Princeton University and divorced in 1983.
In securing the nomination, Sotomayor was chosen over considerable competition, including U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan and federal appellate judge Diane Wood of Chicago, whom many viewed as the favorite because of her connection to Obama’s hometown. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano also was reported to be one of the president’s four finalists.
So what are the five steps to filling a Supreme Court vacancy?
Step one: Supreme Court Justice David Souter has made his retirement announcement official, writing to President Obama, “Dear Mr. President: When the Supreme Court rises for the summer recess this year, I intend to retire from regular active service as a justice.” While Souter may stay longer if a replacement is not quickly confirmed, the president must nominate a successor.
Step two: The Constitution requires the president to submit his nomination to the Senate for its advice and consent; the House plays no role. The Senate’s majority Democrats and minority Republicans will investigate the nominee’s background thoroughly before hearings begin in the Senate Judiciary Committee. It normally takes between four and six weeks to begin hearings after the Senate receives a Supreme Court nomination.
Step three: The Senate will try to hold hearings and a confirmation vote b efore the Supreme Court begins its new term in October.
Step four: Hearings will be supervised by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Following Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter’s defection to the Democratic Party earlier this week, GOP committee members will have to elect a new top committee Republican. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has served as chairman before, and would need a waiver from members to serve again. Next in line would be Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. Senate hearings on the nominations of John Roberts as chief justice and Samuel Alito as justice, the high court’s two newest justices, lasted about a week.
Step five: At the end of hearings, the committee will vote on the nominee and send a recommendation to the full Senate. Whether the committee decision is positive or negative, the full Senate is likely to vote on the nomination.
It takes 60 votes to block a filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee. Democrats now hold 59 votes in the Senate with Specter’s defection and two Democratic-voting independents. There is one open seat in the Senate with Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken fighting in court over the vacant Minnesota seat.