Who is really qualified to sit on the Supreme Court?

(Cross-posted from Think it Through)

Having just returned from a blog-free, almost e-mail free three weeks in Umbria, I have learned that the President named Sonia Sotomayor as his choice to replace David Souter on the Supreme Court, and that the Republicans in the Senate and elsewhere are making noises about opposing her on the grounds that she is too Hispanic.

Sotomayor's critics start by admitting that she is "qualified." She has a law degree from Yale University, was appointed to the federal district court by Republican President Bush in 1991, then elevated to an appeals court judgeship by President Clinton in 1998. Her critics argue that being qualified is not enough. They question her judgment, because she would see the law through the eyes of a Puerto Rican woman from New York City. Essentially she is too Hispanic-urban-northeastern-female.

The nominee's critics would have a legitimate point if her record showed that her personal opinion caused her to mangle the Constitution and distort the law.  But if that were true, they would be making the case that she is unqualified.  Judge Robert Bork had a distinguished career as a federal judge and legal scholar before the Senate decided he was unfit to serve on the Supreme Court.  In the 1989 debate, the Senators stated that Bork's views of the Constitution were so out of the mainstream as to make him unqualified to sit on the Supreme Court.  The Senate did not say "he was qualified, but..."

This issue of qualifications is not merely one of semantics; it goes to the heart of the debate over Supreme Court nominees. During the debates over the nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito the Republican Administration did an outstanding job creating the assumption that a Supreme Court nominee is qualified if he or she meets the following criteria: attended a reputable law school, has had experience as judge, looks good in a blue suit, has a loving family to sit in the front row at the hearings, and does not have a criminal record.

The Senate Democrats, including Senator Obama, went along with this definition. This led some Senators, like Obama, to oppose someone they believed was qualified. The National Journal quotes Obama's Senate remarks on the Roberts nomination: "I have no doubt in my mind Judge Roberts is qualified to sit on the highest court in the land. .... The problem I had is when I examined Judge Roberts' record and history of public service , it is my personal estimation that he has far more often used his formidable skills on behalf of the strong in opposition to the weak."

The narrow definition of qualifications to be a Supreme Court judge is a mistake. It also contradicts public opinion. Research that our firm, Belden Russonello & Stewart, has conducted, indicates Americans would expand the definition of qualified to mean that the nominee's views on the Constitution are in keeping with our traditions and laws and norms of the day.

In the case of Sam Alito, his consistent rulings which ignored precedent and facts to side with institutions of authority over claims of individual rights placed him at odds with the framers of our Constitution.  I would argue that John Roberts' qualifications were unknown because he refused to hand over all of his legal opinions when he worked at the Justice Department for President Reagan.

I cannot remember any Senator claiming Roberts was unfit for the Supreme Court because of his midwesterness, or that Alito was too Italian -- although I could offer plenty of pros and cons on the latter, based my own Italian-American upbringing a few miles away from Alito's in Essex County, New Jersey.

Sotomayor's ethnicity can only be a plus on the Supreme Court, which needs the Constitution to be interpreted by people who know the law and know our country.

The public has it right.  We should have a broader definition of qualifications, and from what we know about Sonia Sotomayor, she certainly seems to pass that test.

John Russonello is a partner with Belden Russonello & Stewart:Public Opinion Research and Strategic Communications in Washington, DC. He writes the blog "Think it Through."

Tags: john roberts, Robert Bork, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court (all tags)

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