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Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Gay Rights

How likely is Justice Sotomayor to vote in favor of gay rights?


New Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor applauds during a reception in her honor in the

New Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor applauds during a reception in her honor in the East Room of the White House.

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Newly-appointed Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is the first hispanic Supreme Court justice and the third woman to sit on the bench.

How likely is she to side with LGBT rights advocates should gay rights issues come before the court?

When asked about gay marriage during her confirmation hearing, Justice Sotomayor said she would keep a "completely open mind."

Detroit News columnist Deb Price is optimistic, noting that "to gay Americans, Sonia Sotomayor isn't just any new justice: She will likely hold the balance on a Supreme Court believed to be evenly divided over gay Americans' basic constitutional rights." Price continues: "The justice she replaces, David Souter, had tilted the advantage to the court's gay-friendly wing."

The Importance of Empathy

To ensure equal protections for LGBT people, it's important that seated justices either have had previous experience dealing with cases involving discrimination against LGBT people or have at least a level of empathy when it comes to often disenfranchised communities.

LGBT legal advocate organization Lambda Legal stresses that "the judges who hear their cases don’t always have personal knowledge about these kinds of injustices, but we hope they will have enough empathy to understand the unfairness and harm caused by them. And they must be ready to uphold the law."

Justice Sotomayor's Previous Rulings

Past performance is no guarantee of future decision-making; but previous rulings can be a strong indicator or future opinions.

In her op-ed, Deb Price cites previous cases involving LGBT rights and issues heard throughout Justice Sotomayor's career. The first, Holmes v. Artuz, involved a gay prison inmate that was refused a job in the mess hall. Justice Sotomayor, then a district court judge, wrote, "The constitutional right not to be discriminated against for any reason, including sexual orientation, without a rational basis is an established proposition of law."

Also, in 1996, as part of a three-judge appeals court panel, Justice Sotomayor joined a decision stating that a gay man ridiculed by his boss for not being a "manly man" was entitled to a trial on his claim of a hostile work environment (Miller v. City of New York).

A Hopeful Future

Justice Sotomayor is known as a broad-thinking progressive, focused on the facts of the cases presented before her. As legal same-sex marriage laws continue to expand throughout the country; as gay asylum issues put pressure on restrictive immigration policies; as same-sex adoption and employment discrimination cases rise to higher courts and Congress considers the expansion of benefits to same-sex partners of employees, it's inevitable that our nation's highest court will be presented with many LGBT-focused cases in the near future. As Deb Price predicts, Justice Sotomayor may just be the balance that's needed on the Supreme Court to tilt the scales towards equal LGBT rights.
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