Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Guest Blogger Series: Harry Reid "Life Experience not at Odds with Judicial Ability"

By: Harry Reid

As featured in the Miami Herald

Some slivers of my past: A dust storm. A one-room schoolhouse. The teacher who gave me boxing gloves.

This imagery might not evoke of the U.S. Senate, but it represents experiences that have shaped me as a person, and by consequence a U.S. senator. Abraham Lincoln’s childhood in a cabin shaped his character as a future president. Thurgood Marshall’s elementary school teachers would have never guessed that punishing him to copy the Constitution would inspire him to live by that document.

Unfortunately, many commentators have taken some phrases from some of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor’s past speeches to say that she will rule based on a perceived ethnic agenda.

All of these folks ignore the spirit of her words: Our life experiences shape us.

Do these experiences completely dictate how we conduct ourselves? Of course not. Last week I had the pleasure of meeting her. I came away convinced that Sotomayor has always been guided by, above all else, the rule of law. But her background has given her an insight into how an abstract ruling can affect the daily lives of millions.

Sotomayor grew up in the South Bronx in a family that moved from Puerto Rico after World War II. At age 8, she was diagnosed with diabetes; a year later her father died. Her mother raised her on a nurse’s salary.

One investment Sotomayor’s mother made was in the only encyclopedia in the neighborhood. With this, Nancy Drew mysteries and Perry Mason thrillers, young Sonia started her love with the law.

On to the Ivy League

Sotomayor left the projects for Princeton and graduated summa cum laude before attending Yale Law School.

She became an assistant district attorney in New York City, prosecuting all types of crimes. Sotomayor then worked as a corporate attorney before President George H.W. Bush nominated her to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in 1991. In 1998, President Bill Clinton nominated her to the Second Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, where she has participated in 3,000 decisions and authored around 300 circuit court opinions.

Sotomayor would bring more federal judicial experience to the Supreme Court than any justice in 100 years. As a lawyer, I am impressed with her knowledge of case law and her sharp analytic skills.

As a human being, I felt a sense of kinship as I sat across from the judge, who, much like me, rose from improbable circumstances to the heights of her chosen profession.

I was born in a desert town to a hard-rock miner and a mother who earned a living washing clothes. I was educated in a school so tiny that it either discouraged you from aspiring to anything or made you appreciate the true value of every opportunity in life.

The U.S. Capitol and Searchlight, Nev., cannot be more different. There I learned to stand up for the little guy, like my favorite teacher when he climbed into a ring to teach the school’s bully a lesson. To understand me, you first need to understand Searchlight and its searing desert, where I still live.

Justice Samuel Alito, an Italian American, concurs with me in this philosophy.

”When I get a case about discrimination, I have to think about people in my own family who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of religion or because of gender. And I do take that into account,” he said during confirmation hearings.

Having a tough time

So when Sotomayor talks about growing up as a Latina in 1960s New York or being one of a handful of Hispanics in Princeton, it should not be interpreted as a mark against her judicial ability. Rather, it is indicative of the insightful perspective that she will bring to the Supreme Court as she works to uphold the Constitution.

As I talked with Sotomayor, I saw a reflection of myself and of the fabric of this country. I realized that I was sitting across a person who took hardship and turned it into the anvil that shaped her character.

She is the quintessential American story. How is this a detriment to the highest court in the land?

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., is Senate majority leader.