Lesson: Justice Sotomayor & Hispanic Heritage Month
by Charity Yi
How can a new justice affect the Supreme Court?
When the Supreme Court begins its fall session on October 5th, its newest member, Sonia Sotomayor, will be present as the Court’s first-ever Hispanic justice. In a happy coincidence, she will join her fellow justices during the heart of Hispanic Heritage Month, a month set aside each year between September 15th and October 15th to honor the contributions of Hispanic Americans to the United States.
Given that Sotomayor is the Court’s 111th appointee in its 220-year history, the fact that she is the first Hispanic justice is particularly notable. Sotomayor is also the third woman ever to be confirmed for a seat on the Court.
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is part of the judicial branch of the U.S. government. It is the highest court in the land. Its main purpose is to make judicial rulings based on the Constitution.
The Court does this by hearing cases. Each case centers on a difference of opinion about whether a law is in agreement with the Constitution.
The Court’s nine justices hear the cases, discuss them, and issue rulings. The rulings are based on a vote; the majority wins. Rulings of the Supreme Court are usually final. They can only be overturned by another Supreme Court ruling or by a constitutional amendment.
About Sonia Sotomayor
Sotomayor grew up in New York City, in the Bronx. Her parents had emigrated to the United States from Puerto Rico. After Sonia’s father passed away when she was just nine, her mother, Celina, worked two jobs to provide for Sonia and her brother, Juan. Celina Sotomayor believed very strongly that a good education was key to success in life. Although the family struggled financially, she nevertheless managed to buy an encyclopedia for her children. Her dedication paid o_: Today, Juan is a doctor, and Sonia is a member of the highest court in the land.
Steeped in Tradition
The Supreme Court follows many traditions. For example, justices sit in order of seniority, and they begin each day with a handshake. Other traditions apply only to the newest justice. For instance, if someone knocks on the door while the justices are meeting privately, Sotomayor will have to answer it. She will also be responsible for taking notes during meetings and relaying the justices’ decisions to the Court clerk. When votes are cast, Sotomayor will offer hers only after her colleagues have weighed in.
Sotomayor had her first opportunity to participate on the Supreme Court on September 9th. In a rare summer session, the Court reconsidered a case on how much corporations should be allowed to spend on election campaigns, such as ads for the candidate it supports. A key question in the debate is whether corporations are entitled to the First Amendment’s right to free speech. Americans are curious how the newest justice will vote.
Jeff Birnbaum, a political columnist, is carefully observing Sotomayor in her new role. “Justice Sotomayor may … spell the difference … on many issues that we … can’t imagine. So, history was made, and maybe even more history will be made.”
appointee > a person chosen to carry out a job or to hold a position
confirmed > formally approved
rulings > decisions on legal matters
traditions > customs, beliefs, and practices handed down from the past until now
corporation > a type of business organization
Hispanic Heritage Month
Hispanic Heritage Month is marked by activities and ceremonies that honor Hispanic contributions to American history and present-day American culture.
Hispanics in America
• Alberto Gonzales became the nation’s first Hispanic Attorney General in 2005.
• General Elwood “Pete” Quesada played a key role in creating what is now the Federal
Aviation Administration (FAA), serving as its very first Administrator from 1958 to 1961.
• Dr. Severo Ochoa won the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for his discovery of RNA in 1959.
• Dr. Franklin Chang-Díaz was the first Hispanic astronaut. He took part in a space mission in 1986.
• The Spanish word montana, which means “mountainous,” was chosen as the name for our nation’s 41st state.
• Nevada is a Spanish word meaning “snow-capped,” which often describes the mountains in the state so named.
1. What is significant about October 5th?
2. Describe how the Supreme Court fulfills its role.
3. Assess the significance of traditions on the Supreme Court.