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Published: Sunday, 5/31/2009

An enlightened choice

WHEN President Obama announced federal appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor as his nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, she described herself as "an ordinary person who has been blessed." Humility aside, she is an extraordinary person who, in the President's words, has made an "extraordinary journey."

Born into a family of immigrant Puerto Ricans living in a Bronx housing project, Judge Sotomayor, 54, went on to excel at Princeton University and Yale law school, then as a prosecutor, private attorney, federal district judge, and appellate judge. But the blessings that propelled her to success are now curses in the mouth of her critics.

As with any person this President would have nominated, Judge Sotomayor comes predemonized. For right-wing interest groups, she is presumptively liberal and activist. Her record has been thoroughly scoured to find the evidence to fit this stereotype, but a fair reading of it doesn't justify the alarms.

To be sure, she seems a fair approximation of Justice David Souter, the retiring liberal-leaning justice she would replace on the bench. But her record also includes favoring police and prosecutors over defendants. It even includes a 2002 opinion rejecting a challenge by an abortion-rights group to the Bush administration's gag rule affecting overseas abortion providers.

Certainly, there are cases - the most famous one being the white firefighters whose claim for discrimination in New Haven, Conn., she joined in rejecting - which paint her as a conventional liberal. But is she further to the left than Chief Justice John Roberts or Justice Samuel Alito - President George W. Bush's nominees - were to the right? Probably not.

Some of the critical commentary has been downright childish and even unhinged: To the dubious Rush Limbaugh, she's a "reverse racist"; to the patronizing Karl Rove, she's not sufficiently intelligent. This side of the nomination hearings, most of her opponents have their prejudices but not her true measure.

The American people know what they see: A well-qualified jurist who would be the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court and only the third woman. Barring some unexpected revelation, her nomination looks enlightened.



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