Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor, seen here swearing in Vice President Joseph Biden. (Photo/Getty Images)

Analysis: Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s increasingly visible Supreme Court role

As many across the nation parsed out and analyzed the Supreme Court Justices’ questions and comments during the hearings on the legitimacy of banning gay marriage through Prop 8 and through the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), one Justice was repeatedly quoted for her incisive questions and probing during the two days of  arguments – and that was the Supreme Court’s Latina Justice, Sonia Sotomayor.

“I have been fascinated by Justice Sotomayor’s role,” says political scientist Celeste Montoya, who teaches gender studies and politics at the University of Colorado-Boulder. “Sotomayor brings a sense of compassion and what comes across as a commitment to equality, but in a basic, straightforward, constitutional way,” says Montoya.

On the Prop 8 arguments, Sotomayor questioned defenders of Prop 8 on why the state of California could make a legal argument for excluding same-sex couples from getting married.

“Outside of the marriage context,” asked Justice Sotomayor during Tuesday’s arguments, “can you think of any other rational basis, reason, for a state using sexual orientation as a factor in denying homosexuals benefits?” Sotomayor questioned.

“Those lines made a profound impression on me.  She stole the show,” says Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, an attorney at Lambda Legal, the nation’s oldest legal organization advocating for gay rights. He argues Sotomayor was able to show that in essence, proponents of Prop 8 could not prove there was any harm or injury to heterosexual marriage by having same-sex marriage.

“Sotomayor played a key role in unpacking and unveiling these arguments,” says Espinoza-Madrigal.

Montoya added that during those arguments,”Sotomayor was not trying to craft new precedents or engage in radical judicial activism.  Her arguments just showed it’s increasingly hard to argue the state had a rational basis for the law,” she says.

Attorney John Treviño believes Justice Sotomayor’s experiences as a woman and as a minority inform her perspectives on the challenges facing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. “As a member of the National LGBT Bar Association and the Hispanic National Bar Association, I appreciate her insightful questions during the oral argument,” Treviño says, “and hope for a ruling that reflects her commitment to fairness.”

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Espinoza-Madrigal says Sotomayor’s performance reaffirmed his belief in the necessity for a diverse judiciary. “I was happy to see that an active bench composed of women and people of color is wrestling with these matters, and trying to interpret the constitution in a way that hopefully will be inclusive and will prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation.”

Moreover, argues Montoya, this diversity is ultimately good in reaffirming the legitimacy of the Court itself.

“It’s all about signaling.  It reaffirms that the Supreme Court is not a sacred, legal institution separate from political realities.  The different life experiences of the Justices does factor into their whole array of legal expertise,” Montoya explains.

“The people of this country look up to the Supreme Court, they want to see and feel reflected in the discourse, in the jurisprudence and in the analysis,” says Espinoza-Madrigal. “That is an important part of what is going on.”

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