WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama threw a big White House party Wednesday to celebrate Sonia Sotomayor as the Supreme Court's first Latino justice – and to publicly savor the victory sure to earn him points with politically potent Hispanics.
The event – televised remarks from Obama and Sotomayor followed by a private reception for a few hundred supporters – was packed with Sotomayor's family and friends, lawmakers, issue advocates, Hispanic community leaders and two of her fellow Supreme Court justices. The jubilance of those who helped shepherd her confirmation through the Senate gave the event a pep-rally feel amid the stately grandeur of the East Room.
The Supreme Court is a separate branch of government that frequently rules on cases critical to the administration in power. Still, because presidents make the nominations – and because Supreme Court confirmations have become taxing, politically hard-fought affairs – it is common for the White House to stage celebrations once the nominees are confirmed.
Typically, though not always, justices have two swearing-in ceremonies, an intimate judicial oath at the Supreme Court followed by a pomp-filled White House event in which the new justice takes the constitutional oath administered to all federal employees. This was true for Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Samuel Alito, Stephen Breyer, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
During Wednesday's celebration, both Obama and Sotomayor heavily emphasized the history being made now that she has joined the court, its first Hispanic and just the third woman in its 220-year history.
The lines from both about Sotomayor's unlikely rise, from a poor and difficult childhood in public housing projects in the South Bronx to an Ivy League education and distinguished legal career, were huge crowd-pleasers. Nearly every time either mentioned the inspirational qualities of Sotomayor's nomination by Obama in May and confirmation by the Senate last Thursday, people clapped, cheered and jumped to their feet.
Obama's words that Sotomayor's move brings the nation "another step to the more perfect union that we all seek" were welcome in the room. They were also a reminder to Latino voters around the nation that Obama, the country's first black president, is the one who at last put one of their own in one of America's most prestigious jobs.
"While this is Justice Sotomayor's achievement, the result of her ability and determination, this moment is not just about her. It's about every child who will grow up thinking to him or herself, 'If Sonia Sotomayor can make it, then maybe I can, too,'" Obama said. "This is a great day for America."
Hispanics are heavily courted by both political parties. Despite recent gains by Republicans among Latino voters, polls show they went heavily for Obama over Republican John McCain in the last election. Sotomayor was confirmed by a 68-31 Senate vote, with Democrats warning Republicans voting against her that they risked a backlash from Hispanic voters.
Sotomayor spoke emotionally about her gratitude to family and country for making her achievement possible.
"It is our nation's faith in a more perfect union that allows a Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx to stand here now," she said. "I am struck again today by the wonder of my own life and the life we in America are so privileged to lead."
Sotomayor has no time to rest. The court's rookie and second-youngest justice, she must move to Washington from New York and immediately get to work studying and hiring clerks to be ready when the court hears arguments beginning Sept. 9 in an important and complicated case about money in campaigns.
The entire court will convene the day before for a formal ceremony to welcome Sotomayor. The new court term formally begins Oct. 5.