Sotomayor Confirmation Hearing – Testimony of Wade Henderson

Location: Senate Judiciary Committee

Chairman Leahy, Ranking Member Sessions, and members of the Committee:

I have the privilege of representing the views of The Leadership Conference, the nation’s leading civil and human rights coalition consisting of more than 200 organizations, working to build an America that is as good as its ideals.

This morning, I will briefly address four of the points that have figured in the debate about Judge Sotomayor’s nomination:

  • First, her qualifications for serving on the nation’s highest court;
  • Second, her personal background and her empathy for others who have had to work hard to succeed;
  • Third, her role in the unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel in the case of Ricci v. DeStefano; and
  • Fourth, her past membership on the board of one of the Leadership Conference’s member organizations, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

First, let me rejoice in what is self-evident:

The nomination of Judge Sotomayor to be an associate justice on our nation’s highest court is a milestone by many standards. The nation’s first African-American President has nominated the first Hispanic American, only the third woman, and only the third person of color to serve on the Supreme Court.

While great challenges remain on our nation’s quest for equal opportunity, we have truly reached an historic marker on the journey toward our goal of “Equal Justice Under Law” – the phrase inscribed, not far from here, on the front of the Supreme Court building.

But, hopeful and historic as her nomination has been, Judge Sotomayor should herself be judged, not by who she is, but by what she has done.

Let me be as clear as I can: There is no question that she is qualified. She distinguished herself at Princeton and at Yale Law School. She then spent eight years as a prosecutor in Manhattan, working for the legendary District Attorney Robert Morgenthau; eight years as a corporate litigator; and 17 years as a federal district court judge and an appellate court judge.

Second, as with other nominees across the philosophical spectrum, including Justices Thomas and Alito, Judge Sotomayor has spoken of her family history and her personal struggles. These experiences help her to understand others and to do justice. They further qualify her for the highest court – and she has said and done nothing that could reasonably be understood otherwise.

Third, Judge Sotomayor has participated in thousands of cases and has authored hundreds of opinions. But much of the debate about her nomination has concentrated on the difficult case of Ricci v. DeStefano. Whatever one may feel about the facts in this case; we all agree that the Supreme Court, in its Ricci decision, set a new standard for interpreting Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Using this one decision to negate Judge Sotomayor’s 17 years on the bench does a disservice to her record and to this country.

Fourth, I must speak to the attacks on Judge Sotomayor because of her service on the board of one of our nation’s leading civil rights organizations. These attacks do an injustice, not only to Judge Sotomayor and to the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund, but also to the entire civil rights community and to all those who look to us for a measure of justice.

Make no mistake: Legal Defense Funds play an indispensable role in American life. They are private attorneys general that assist individuals – often those with few resources and no other representation – to become full shareholders in the American Dream. When Justice Thurgood Marshall was nominated, there were those who questioned his role with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. But history does not remember their quibbles kindly.

Judge Sotomayor has lived the American Dream, and she understands all who aspire to it. Her qualifications are unquestioned; and the lessons that she has learned in her life, as well as in libraries, will serve her and our country well in the years ahead.

All those who walk through the entrance to the Supreme Court, seeking what is inscribed above its dome– “Equal Justice Under Law” – can be confident that a Justice Sotomayor will continue to do her part to keep the promise of our courts and our country.

Thank you.