Justice David H. Souter’s departure from the Supreme Court gives the first African American president a historic opportunity to break another barrier by appointing the first Hispanic to the nation’s highest court.
Those involved in the process inside the White House and those advising from outside say President Obama would relish such a choice. He studiously and successfully courted Hispanic support during the campaign and has maintained close ties to Latino leaders since coming to office.
But the White House is constructing its appointment strategy on the belief that this will not be his only appointment to the court and that he need not reach his goal of changing the racial, ethnic and gender balance on the court with just one pick.
White House officials believe that Obama may get at least two more appointments. Justices John Paul Stevens, 89, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 76, are most often mentioned as possibilities to leave, though neither has given such an indication.
That would give Obama more freedom if he decided Judge Sonia Sotomayor or another Hispanic is not the right choice in the short term. He could appoint a woman this time, the thinking goes, and appoint a Latino or Latina later.
The pressure to name a Hispanic justice is building, with Hispanic legal groups calling–ever so gently–for the court’s first Latino member. That call was backed up by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which told Obama that “appointing our nation’s first Hispanic justice would undoubtedly be welcomed by our community and bring greater diversity of thought, perspective and experience to the nation’s legal system.”
Congressional aides said Obama’s administration has been reaching out to Hispanic members in recent days to get their input on the president’s choice. Obama aides have talked with the leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Chairwoman Nydia M. Velázquez and Vice Chair Charles A. Gonzalez.
But both the White House and the groups are taking pains to avoid the perception that putting a Hispanic on the bench would be either a demand or a reward, and Obama advisers warned that pressure campaigns can caricature potential jurists as purely ethnic choices.
The most prominent Hispanic candidate is Sotomayor of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York. She is under serious consideration by the White House and would not only become the court’s first Hispanic member, she would also meet Obama’s goal of naming a woman.
“Would there be a disappointment in the community” if Obama does not choose a Hispanic, asked Gabriela Lemus of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda. “I would say so.”
But she added: “We’re politically mature enough to know there’s going to be another chance.”
Of the seven Hispanic appeals court judges appointed by Democrats, only Sotomayor and Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw of the 9th Circuit in California are younger than 60. There are only 15 Hispanics at the district court level appointed by Democratic presidents, compared with 33 appointed by Republicans.