Obama Leaves His Mark on the Lower Courts

Demographic considerations have played into the appointment of Supreme Court justices since the institution was established. Starting in the 20th century, these concerns shifted from geographic representation to issues of gender and ethnicity.

Prior to the 2008 presidential election, many court watchers suggested that the next president would be under significant pressure to appoint another woman or ethnic minority to the court. The calls for naming more women were particularly widespread given the recent retirement of Sandra Day O’Connor and the rapidly changing demographics of the legal community, with women now accounting for about a fifth of all law partners and law school deans, a quarter of the federal bench, and nearly half of all law school graduates. Shortly before the election, for example, NPR reported, “Most observers of the Supreme Court agree about one thing: The next nominee is likely to be a woman”. Furthermore, after Obama’s presidential election victory, Hispanic legal interests groups such as the Hispanic National Bar Association began urging Obama to nominate a Hispanic justice.

Sometimes we’re only looking at academics or people who’ve been in the [lower courts]. If we can find people who have life experience and they understand what it means to be on the outside, what it means to have the system not work for them, that’s the kind of person I want on the Supreme Court.

Given the relative youth of the most recent Republican appointments, it was also noted that Democrats had “a strong incentive to pick younger justices this time around”. Age proved to be an important consideration for Obama, who was “looking for a justice who will be an intellectual force on the court for many years to come”. As a result, Obama did not seriously consider candidates such as Jose Cabranes, Amalya Kearse, Diana Gribbon Motz, David Tatel, and Laurence Tribe, all of whom he respected but were older than 65 when Obama was looking to replace David Souter.

With the retirement of Justice Stevens, some commentators directed focus on the religious make-up of the court. Upon Justice Stevens’ retirement, the Court lacked any Protestant members, marking the first time in its history that it will be exclusively composed of Jewish and Catholic Justices.

On May 26, 2009, Obama announced Second Circuit appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor as his choice to replace retiring Associate Justice David H. Souter. Sotomayor’s nomination was submitted to the United States Senate on June 1, 2009, when the 111th Congress reconvened after its Memorial Day recess. Sotomayor was confirmed by the Senate on August 6, 2009, by a vote of 68–31, and was sworn in as an Associate Justice on August 8, 2009.

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