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Obama makes his pick for highest court

From NBC's Athena Jones
President Obama
ended weeks of speculation today when he named Sonia Sotomayor, an Ivy League-educated judge currently serving on the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, as his pick for the Supreme Court.

Sotomayor, who would become the court's first Hispanic justice and only its third woman, would replace retiring Justice David Souter. Obama -- himself a historic first -- made the announcement before an audience that included Sotomayor's mother, brother, and other family members.

Calling the nomination of Supreme Court justices among the most serious and consequential responsibilities the Constitution grants a president, Obama said he had made his decision after consulting members of Congress from both parties, constitutional scholars, advocacy organizations, and bar associations.

He told the audience he wanted a judge with a "rigorous intellect" and mastery of the law who would not legislate from the bench, saying he wanted someone who understood that "a judge's job is to interpret, not make law, to approach decisions without any particular ideology or agenda rather a commitment to impartial justice, a respect for precedent and a determination to faithfully apply the law to the facts at hand."

Obama said it was also important that any justice he nominate have the kind of diversity of experience that would give them an understanding of the real world impact of their decisions. In the weeks leading up to his pick and during the presidential campaign, the president often spoke of these traits as vital to any nominee -- often using the word "empathy." Today, he quoted Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to illustrate what he saw as a quality he believed to be essential.

"The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience," Obama quoted the justice as saying. "Experience being tested by obstacles and barriers, by hardship and misfortune; experience insisting, persisting, and ultimately overcoming those barriers. It is experience that can give a person a common touch and a sense of compassion; an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live and that is why it is a necessary ingredient in the kind of justice we need on the Supreme Court."

Obama called Sotomayor -- who grew up in a tough South Bronx public housing project, graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton University and edited the Yale Law Journal while a law student there -- an "inspiring woman" with an "invaluable" breadth of perspective. She has worked as a prosecutor and a corporate lawyer and the president noted that she would be replacing Souter as the only justice with experience as a trial judge.

"Walking in the door she would bring more experience on the bench, and more varied experience on the bench, than anyone currently serving on the United States Supreme Court had when they were appointed," Obama said.

A big-time sports fan himself, Obama jokingly mentioned Sotomayor's love for the Yankees and her decision to issue an injunction that helped end a baseball strike in 1994-1995.

The president noted that Sotomayor was nominated to the U.S. District Court by Republican President George H.W. Bush and was elevated to the Federal Court of Appeals by a Democrat, President Bill Clinton, and said he hoped the Senate would "act in a bipartisan fashion as it has in confirming Judge Sotomayor twice before."

The White House hopes to get Sotomayor through the confirmation process in time to take her seat before the next Supreme Court session begins in October. Some observers have suggested Republicans could have a hard time opposing the nation's first Hispanic nominee -- a line of reasoning that could be seen as diminishing Sotomayor's qualifications and reducing her to a token.

Sotomayor's parents came to New York from Puerto Rico during World War II. Her father died when she was nine, and her mother worked six days a week as a nurse to provide for Sonia and her brother, Juan. Sotomayor thanked her family -- especially her mother -- and friends during her brief remarks and said her life experience would inform her decisions on the bench.

"This wealth of experiences, personal and professional, have helped me appreciate the variety of perspectives that present themselves in every case that I hear," she said. "It has helped me to understand, respect, and respond to the concerns and arguments of all litigants who appear before me, as well as to the views of my colleagues on the bench. I strive never to forget the real-world consequences of my decisions on individuals, businesses, and government."

Vice President Joe Biden, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Senior Adviser David Axelrod were also on hand for the much-anticipated announcement.