The President has nominated Judge Sonia Sotomayor to fill the vacancy created by Justice Souter's retirement from the Supreme Court. His choice has the expected combination of multicultural idealism and cynical political calculation. If confirmed, Sotomayor will be the first Hispanic person on the high court, and that prospect may deter Republicans from any major effort to block her confirmation. They might also note that she has the George H. W. Bush stamp of approval, since he appointed her to her first federal judgeship about 20 years ago.
Sotomayor is reputed to be a centrist, and has been criticized from at least one quarter for being a mediocre intellectual. At first glance, it looks like reactionaries will fight her on the ground of affirmative action rather than abortion rights. She ruled against white firemen who claimed reverse discrimination back in the 1990s, while deferring to the first President Bush on blocking foreign aid to family planning programs that included abortion.
I'm unimpressed by the President's insistence that "compassion" is required to "interpret the Constitution wisely." The document exists as a check on all passions, and we should expect any judge to appreciate that. The Constitution is an artifact of a less "compassionate" time, and compassion is probably better applied to amending it than to interpreting what's already written. I don't say this to disqualify Sotomayor, but to suggest that the better alternative to reading anachronistic values into the language of the Framers is to affirm explicitly that our fundamental values have changed since 1789. If we continue to argue over what the Framers meant the reactionaries will always have an edge. But if we do what the Framers permitted, reactionary adherence to a skewed notion of the Framers' original intent will become increasingly irrelevant. It isn't up to the Supreme Court to lead any revolution. Its job is to enforce the revolutions enacted by the people. Once we face up to this truth, judicial confirmations should become as uncontroversial as they used to be.