American Jews, like all Americans, have much at stake in the next appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. Which is why we need to pay close attention to President Barack Obama's nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, as the Senate confirmation process gets under way.
Jewish groups were quick to identify with her poignant personal story and point out the significance of her becoming, if confirmed, the first Hispanic and third female justice on the highest court in the land. But they were more circumspect when it came to an actual endorsement, reluctant to cast an uninformed yea or nay to her nomination.
Obama, perhaps anxious to avoid a bruising battle with the U.S. Senate, chose someone whom neither conservatives could wholeheartedly attack nor liberals could unequivocally embrace. Some of her more moderate past rulings defy easy categorization, making it all the more likely that she will be confirmed.
By all accounts, Sotomayor is a brilliant legal mind with a heartwarming history, having risen from a South Bronx housing project, barely speaking English, to college at Princeton and then Yale law school. Her diverse legal experience brought her to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan, where she now sits.
Obama said that he was looking to nominate someone with empathy, and so it seems he has. But it's how she will apply that "common touch" and her legal underpinnings that matter most.
We as Jews need to worry about rulings that have emerged recently from the Supreme Court, which has come dangerously close to eroding some freedoms cherished by most in our community, including the right to legalized abortion, and the separation of church and state.
With the ascension of Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito during the Bush administration, the court has veered right, often splitting 5-4 on major decisions. Judge David Souter, who is retiring, was often the one who cast the swing vote. It will be up to his replacement to help protect the constitutional rights that have been threatened.
As Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center, argued in a recent opinion piece: "What hangs in the balance is nothing less than the future resolution of today's fierce debates over church-state separation, civil rights, the balance of powers, environmental protection and, without exaggeration, nearly every issue on our Jewish communal agenda."
Therefore, it is entirely appropriate for Jewish groups to get in the game, as the Religious Action Center and the National Council of Jewish Women have done. Both conferred with the president on his choice, and are now working to assemble a list of questions for the Senate Judiciary Committee as it prepares to grill the nominee.
We should all be watching closely.