There is little doubt that Federal Appeals Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor, when and if she is confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice, will be a role model.
As the first Latina on the bench, she would be both a jurist and a constant reminder that this is a richly-diverse and multicultural country that is at its best when we encourage the children of all Americans — no matter what their race, ethnicity, gender or class — to study hard, work hard and achieve great things.
National Council of La Raza president Janet Murguía said it best after President Obama announced his selection of Judge Sotomayor to replace retiring Justice David Souter.
“Today is a monumental day for Latinos,” declared Murguía. “Finally, we see ourselves represented on the highest court in the land. Judge Sotomayor’s story personifies the American Dream for so many Latinos in this country.”
While some suggest that former Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, a Sephardic Jew who traced his own family ties to the Iberian Peninsula, was the first Hispanic to serve on the high court, there can be no question that Judge Sotomayor’s confirmation would bring a new measure of diversity to the court by adding to its bench a Latina with a clear and vital connection to a native-born and immigrant community that is transforming America for the better. (Notably, Cardozo, one of the most highly-regarded jurists of the 20th century, was the last Supreme Court nominee with judicial experience comparable to Sotomayor’s.)
Sotomayor is, as well, the product of a working-class background. The daughter of a factory worker and a nurse in a methadone clinic, she grew up in the South Bronx and later the East Bronx, neighborhoods of a New York City borough that served for a time when she was young as something of a national symbol of urban decay. She teaches powerful lessons about how to survive and thrive in tough, challenging settings.
But Sotomayor’s most important service as a role model may be as a Type 1 diabetic — someone who has, since the age of eight, had to deal with what has variously been referred to as “childhood,” “juvenile” or “insulin-dependent” diabetes.
This is a big deal.
If she is confirmed by the Senate, Sotomayor would be the third woman on the Supreme Court.
She would be the first Latina.
And she would be the first justice known to have Type-1 diabetes.
The American Diabetes Association hailed Obama’s nomination of Judge Sotomayor as a move that “affirms that people with diabetes should not be discriminated against and each person with diabetes should be judged based on his or her merits, not on stereotypes or misinformation about diabetes.”
They’re right, of course.
But it is important to note how meaningful that affirmation is.
“In the days leading up to this nomination, there were several media reports suggesting that Judge Sotomayor should not be considered for this position simply because she has type 1 diabetes,” explains R. Paul Robertson, MD, who serves as president for the medical and science sector of the American Diabetes Association. “The advancements in the management of type 1 diabetes have been just amazing over the last two decades and the ability of people to manage their diabetes successfully has been proven. People with diabetes can function and live a long and healthy life.”
The ADA adds, “As this process moves forward, the diabetes community expects that Judge Sotomayor’s nomination will be evaluated based on her qualifications and years of experience — and not her diabetes. To evaluate her in any other way would be a disservice to the United States.”
Fair points, well made. But let’s not be too quick to dismiss the fact of Judge Sotomayor’s long struggle with a particularly serious form of diabetes. That experience is an asset for a judicial nominee, especially at this moment in history.
Remember that Judge Sotomayor’s diabetes affected her career choices. As a girl she had been drawn to Nancy Drew novels. She wanted to be a police detective. But she determined at an early age that her disease might make it difficult for her to do the job. That’s when she made the decision that would eventually lead her to the federal bench.
“If I couldn’t do detective work as a police officer, I could do it as a lawyer,” she explained in an interview with the New York Daily News.
Bill Ahearn, of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, told AFP that Sotomayor’s nomination “is a teachable moment to a great degree” because it helps explain the disease to the broader American public and “an exemplary moment” for showing those who have Type 1 diabetes that with careful treatment they can achieve great things.
“This is important particularly for those kids who have the disease and are looking at a life of very strenuous management of that disease” — a regimen that includes frequent insulin injections, blood-sugar monitoring, and dietary restrictions — Ahearn explained.
It is also important for a court that will deal, increasingly, with healthcare access and medical-research issues.
To have a judge who understands, through personal experience, the challenges and the needs of Americans with serious diseases, lifelong conditions and profound hopes for medical breakthroughs.
This is another piece of the diversity puzzle, an essential piece that ought not be underestimated.
In a very real sense, the disease that steered her toward a legal career and a place on the federal bench is one of the greatest strengths that Judge Sotomayor would bring to the Supreme Court.