WASHINGTON — The selection of Judge Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court has opened a new battle in the fight over affirmative action and other race-conscious remedies for patterns of inequality, with each side invoking the election of the first black president in support of its cause.
The 1993 nomination of Lani Guinier, center, to a top Justice post was withdrawn over her writings on minority voting.
Judge Sotomayor, whose parents moved to New York from Puerto Rico, has championed the importance of considering race and ethnicity in admissions, hiring and even judicial selection at almost every stage of her career — as a student activist at Princeton and at Yale Law School, as a board member of left-leaning Hispanic advocacy groups and as a federal judge arguing for diversity on the bench.
Now conservatives say her strong identification with such race-based approaches to the law is perhaps the strongest argument against her confirmation, contending that her views put her outside an evolving consensus that such race-conscious public policy is growing obsolete.
“The American ideal is that justice should be colorblind,” said Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican on the Judiciary Committee. “As we see people like Barack Obama achieve the highest office in the land and Judge Sotomayor’s own nomination to the highest court, I think it is harder and harder to see the justifications for race-conscious decisions across the board.”
Mr. Cornyn added, “This is a hot-button issue and one that needs to be confronted head on.”
Gary Marx, executive director of the conservative Judicial Confirmation Network, said he saw a playbook for the campaign against Judge Sotomayor in the successful attacks on Lani Guinier, whose 1993 nomination to a top Justice Department post was withdrawn after an outcry over her writings arguing for alternative voting systems intended to better represent minorities.
“We will see ‘racial quotas’ become a much bigger issue than they might have been had another nominee been brought forward,” Mr. Marx said.
But civil rights advocates, including Ms. Guinier, say times have changed in their favor, also citing Mr. Obama’s election. In an interview, Ms. Guinier said she saw the debate over Judge Sotomayor’s nomination in part as an opportunity for civil rights advocates to push back against the kind of criticism that had thwarted her own nomination.
“It is easy to understand the idea of viewing an individual on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin,” Ms. Guinier said, but race also is a social phenomenon of politics, history and economics that demand deliberate policy responses.
Americans often see the issue in an either-or way — “ you are race-conscious or race-neutral,” she said. “But the election of Barack Obama has served as an emancipatory moment, and people are ready to discuss and listen to more nuanced arguments.”
Having Mr. Obama as a spokesman is different as well, said Hilary O. Shelton, director of the Washington bureau of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “The American people chose change — symbolically, but in policy as well,” Mr. Shelton said. “The American people see things differently now.”
What is more, many civil rights groups say, Judge Sotomayor’s confirmation could provide an anchor against the current direction of the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who has led the more conservative bench toward a sweeping re-examination of government reliance on racial classifications, whether in school desegregation plans or landmark voting rights laws.
“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote in 2007, summing up his approach in one of the most memorable lines of his opinions.
Samuel Issacharoff, a professor at New York University Law School, said, “There is a tendency to say ‘The time has run, things are different, change has happened,’ ” adding, “It is an emerging theme of the Roberts court.”
Judge Sotomayor is not known to have identified herself as a beneficiary of affirmative action, but she has described her academic struggles as a new student at Princeton from a Roman Catholic school in the Bronx — one of about 20 Hispanics on a campus with more than 2,000 students.
She spent summers reading children’s classics she had missed in a Spanish-speaking home and “re-teaching” herself to write “proper English” by reading elementary grammar books. Only with the outside help of a professor who served as her mentor did she catch up academically, ultimately graduating at the top of her class.
She became the outspoken leader of a Puerto Rican student group, leading other Hispanics to file a complaint against Princeton with the federal government to force the hiring of Hispanic faculty members and administrators. “She was very passionate about affirmative action for women and minorities,” said Charles Hey, another Puerto Rican student.
At Yale Law School, she was co-chairman of a group for Latin, Asian and Native American students — a catchall group for nonblack minorities. There she led fellow students in meetings with the dean to push for the hiring of more Hispanic faculty members at the law school. And, friends say, she shared the alarm of others in the group when the Supreme Court prohibited the use of quotas in university admissions in its 1978 decision Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.
As a lawyer, she joined the National Council of La Raza and the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund, two Hispanic civil rights groups that advocate for vigorous affirmative action. As a judge, she has repeatedly argued for diversity on the bench by alluding to the insights she gleaned from her Latina background.
In one of the few cases dealing with the subject that she helped decide on the federal appeals court, Ricci v. New Haven, she ruled in favor of the city’s ’s decision to discard the results of an exam to select firefighters for promotion because too few minority firefighters scored high enough to advance. White firefighters who had scored well on the discarded test sued, and the Supreme Court heard arguments on the case in April.
“Her nomination and the Ricci case have brought racial quotas back as a national issue,” said Mr. Marx of the Judicial Confirmation Network.
The public response, however, is hard to foresee. Few groups conducted public polls on the issue as it faded in recent years, and the results from those that did reveal a consistent ambivalence, said Michael Dimock, a pollster with the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
When asked a question about “affirmative action or preferential treatment for minorities,” the public has consistently opposed the idea by a margin of two to one. But when asked about “affirmative action programs designed to help women and minorities,” an even bigger majority has supported them.
And, Mr. Dimock said, the election of Mr. Obama does not appear to have changed either result.