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It may seem hard to believe, but it was not so long ago that Sonia Sotomayor was far from a household name. The country’s first Hispanic Supreme Court justice lived most of her life in relative obscurity until President Obama nominated her to the high court in 2009. Then came her nationally televised confirmation hearings, the iconic phrase “Wise Latina,” and her best-selling memoir.
Now, as President Obama prepares to name a replacement for the deceased Justice Antonin Scalia, there are several Latinos who are reportedly on his short list for possible nominees – and they could soon see their lives change dramatically as well.
Yet what makes this Supreme Court nomination so unusual is how politically charged it has already become. Senate Republicans have vowed not to hold any hearings or votes on Scalia’s successor until President Obama is out of office. “Presidents have a right to nominate, just as the Senate has its constitutional right to provide or withhold consent,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “In this case, the Senate will withhold it.”
Still, there has been much speculation about potential Court nominees. Asian-American groups, for example, have lobbied for an Asian-American justice. Nevada’s Republican Governor Brian Sandoval was rumored to be a candidate, until he took himself out of the running.
Despite a meeting with Republicans that yielded no consensus on this issue, the president has stated that he remains committed to putting forward a nominee. Meanwhile, a new CNN poll shows that a majority of the public wants a Supreme Court nominee as well as a hearing.
Robert Maldonado, National President of the Hispanic National Bar Association, said that his organization fully supports the nomination process moving forward. “We have been very vocal in supporting and recognizing the president’s constitutional duty to nominate someone for the vacant seat, and also the constitutional duty of the Senate to provide advice and consent of that nomination,” he said. “The president has almost a full year left in his term, and he has obligations and responsibilities under the constitution that he is required to fill. To not fill that seat would be a denial of justice.”
Maldonado pointed out that there are cases before the Court this term that impact Latino communities, including cases involving affirmative action, immigration, and voting rights.
Maldonado said that he was optimistic that the President might choose a Latino Supreme Court nominee. “There are lots of exceptional Hispanic candidates that could be considered,” he said. “The Supreme Court needs to reflect the diversity of the country.”
It might surprise people to know that there are no official requirements for becoming a Supreme Court justice. The website of the Supreme Court notes that there are no age, education, profession, or natural-born citizenship requirements to serve on the Court – although all justices have had legal training.
“At this time, as always, there are a number of very well qualified Latino candidates who could bring additional levels of experience, diversity, background and expertise to the Court,” said Thomas A. Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal and Educational Defense Fund (MALDEF). “There is a high caliber of Latino jurists who should certainly receive serious consideration.”
Here are several Latinos whose names have been mentioned as potential Supreme Court picks:
Mariano Florentino-Cuellar, 43, is an associate justice on the California Supreme Court. Born in Mexico, he is a naturalized U.S. citizen who attended Harvard College, Yale Law School, and Stanford University. “He is a fine lawyer, a great professor, and would be a terrific justice,” said Saenz of MALDEF. A columnist at The Daily Beast referred to Florentino-Cuellar as the “GOP’s worst nightmare Supreme Court nominee,” referring to the political backlash that would likely occur if Republicans denied him a confirmation hearing.
Adalberto Jordan, 54, is an Appeals Court Judge on the Eleventh Circuit. A Cuban-American, he was recently cited by the New York Times and CNN as a possible replacement for Scalia. Jordan attended the University of Miami School of Law and clerked for conservative Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Then-President Bill Clinton appointed him to Federal District Court in 1999, and Obama placed him on the appellate court in 2012, with 42 Republicans voting in favor of his confirmation. Jordan has worked in private practice, in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida, and has taught at Harvard. Jordan’s selection by President Obama could place GOP presidential hopefuls Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio in a bind – having to explain why they would not support a fellow Cuban-American with the potential to make history (and Rubio voted for his confirmation in 2012).
Monica Marquez, born in 1969, has been a justice on the Colorado Supreme Court since 2010. She is a graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School, and has also worked with inner city and at-risk children. Were she to be selected, Marquez would be making history in two ways – she is an “out” member of the LGBT community and a Latina. Marquez comes from a family of trailblazers; she was the first Latina and the first openly gay person to serve on the Colorado Supreme Court – and her father was the first Latino judge on the Colorado Court of Appeals.
Thomas Perez, 54, currently serves as the Secretary of Labor. The son of Dominican immigrants, he holds degrees from Brown University and Harvard. The liberal magazine Mother Jones named Perez as one of Obama’s potential “Dream Team” nominees, noting that he has headed up the Civil Rights division of the Department of Justice and has been through the vetting process before. A supporter of Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy, last month Perez demurred when Fusion host Jorge Ramos asked if he would be interested in becoming a Supreme Court justice. “I’m very focused on my day job as Labor Secretary,” Perez said. “I’m very flattered. I’m focused on helping people get good jobs that pay a middle class wage, and when I’m on my personal time I’m focused on helping Clinton become the next president of the United States.”
Jimmie Reyna, 63, is a circuit judge on the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. A graduate of the University of Rochester and the University of New Mexico School of Law, Reyna is Mexican American. He has been endorsed by the Mexican American Bar Association of Texas (MABATx). “He is a great jurist, a great American, and his record as an appeals court judge is impeccable,” said Benny Agosto Jr., president of MABATx. “He has written on very important cases, such as the Samsung-Apple patent dispute, and he is well respected by the judiciary.” Agosto added that Reyna “does not go by politics – he goes by the law.”
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