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L.A. Latinos applaud Sotomayor's nomination

May 26, 2009 |  2:09 pm

From a popular eatery in East L.A. to the corridors of political power, members of the Latino community today celebrated the nomination of one of their own to the U.S. Supreme Court, a choice they said would bring fresh perspective to the nation’s highest court.

If confirmed, federal Judge Sonia Sotomayor of New York will be the Supreme Court’s first Latino member.

“I think it’s about time,” said Antonio Hernandez, 37, who with his parents owns Teresitas Restaurant in East LA. “Latinos are making a prominent impact on all levels of government as we grow more into the American way of life.”

Hernandez is acquainted with high-flying Latinas nominated by President Obama. Hilda Solis, who became his Labor secretary, was a regular customer.

“I think Obama is trying to include everybody,” Hernandez said as he ate cereal at a counter this morning. “That’s how he ran his campaign.”

Latino and other civil rights advocates have long argued that the composition of the nation’s highest court should better reflect the makeup of U.S. society. The court has just one female justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and one black justice, Clarence Thomas.

Community leaders had pressed Obama, who came into office with a solid majority of the Latino vote, to appoint a Latino to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter.

“It’s absolutely thrilling to see a Latina walk into the East Room today at the White House to accept the nomination,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the Los Angeles-based National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “Latinos are the second largest population group in the United States, and it’s important to have the perspective of this large and growing population on the Supreme Court as our laws evolve and are interpreted by the justices.”

Sotomayor’s presence on the Supreme Court, said officials of the Washington-based Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, would also increase the confidence of underserved communities in the nation’s legal system.

“This nomination inspires hope in the Latino community and all people in this country who come from humble beginnings, aspire to serve this nation and live the American dream,” said the organization’s executive director, Gabriela D. Lemus, in a statement.

Hoping to head off suggestions that Obama’s pick was based more on ethnicity than experience, Sotomayor’s supporters emphasized her legal qualifications and history of bipartisan support . A graduate of Yale Law School, she began her legal career as a prosecutor.

She was first appointed to the federal district court for the Southern District of New York in 1991 by a Republican, President George H.W. Bush. A Democrat, President Clinton, elevated her to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in 1998.

“That resume, those experiences are significant without regard to her race and ethnicity,” said Henry L. Solano, interim president and general counsel for the Los Angeles-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “We would hope and expect that to be recognized.”

Sotomayor’s supporters also argue that she will bring to the court firsthand experience of the challenges faced by millions of Americans across ethnic and racial divides. The daughter of Puerto Ricans, she was raised by her mother in housing projects in the South Bronx after her father died during her childhood.

“Her experiences -- in law and in life -- make her uniquely qualified to serve this country,” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said in a statement. "She has proven a passionate and powerful voice for justice and equality throughout her career, and she has been a strong and stirring advocate for the civil rights, liberties and freedoms of all Americans.”

Later, at a media event in the state Capitol, where the mayor was lobbying state officials not to cut city funds, Villaraigosa said Obama had made a “historic” choice.

“The idea that the highest court of the land should reflect the people of our great nation is an idea that I think has always been important but now even more important when the country is diverse as it is,” he said.

Los Angeles City Councilman Ed Reyes, whose district west of downtown and in part of northeast L.A. is mostly Latino, said there were few people at the highest levels of the judicial system who “understand what it is to be a last name with multiple syllables in this country.”

“To be a Latina, and to come where she came from, I believe is an opportunity for her to bring to the table points of view in the discussion that have never been heard and that I hope will lead to a more compassionate society,” Reyes said.

Some conservative commentators had criticized Obama for saying that he was seeking a justice with “a common touch” and a measure of “empathy,” arguing that emotion has no place in court rulings.

“I don’t think you want robots on the bench,” Vargas countered. “I think you want people who understand how laws affect everyday Americans.”

-- Alexandra Zavis, Hector Becerra and Evan Halper