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Surprise: The Times Actually Brings Up Sotomayor Racial Controversy

After several stories praising Sonia Sotomayor, Friday's front-page finally upturned some fertile ground for criticism: "Nominee's Links With Advocates Fuel Her Critics - Support For Bias Cases - Sotomayor Helped Lead Puetro Rican Legal Defense Fund."

After several stories praising Obama's Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, Friday's front-page finally upturned some fertile ground for criticism in an off-lead story by Raymond Hernandez and David Chen: "Nominee's Links With Advocates Fuel Her Critics - Support For Bias Cases - Sotomayor Helped Lead Puetro Rican Legal Defense Fund."


In the 1980s, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund sued theNew York City Police Department, claiming that its promotion exams discriminated against Latinos and African-Americans.


The fund, one of the advocacy groups pressing similar cases across the country, also helped redraw voting districts in the city that increased the number of Hispanic elected officials. The defense fund even sued a former Reagan administration official for defamation after he claimed that virtually all Puerto Ricans in New York received food stamps.


All those efforts were backed by the defense fund's board of directors, an active and passionate group that included a young lawyer namedSonia Sotomayor, who this week was chosen byPresident Obamato join the country's highest court.



By contrast, not a whisper about Sotomayor's membership in the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund made it into Wednesday's gushing 5,000-word front-page "Woman in the News" profile.



It's a solid story, and the paper even connected the dots near the end, showing the conflict between Sotomayor's previous efforts to push quotas for Latino and black policemen, and her more recent decision as a judge, in which she curtly dismissed the claims of a white firefighter claiming discrimination. Still, the Times managed to sound a little regretful that this would become an issue, in a sentence (in bold, below) that makes one wonderif the Times has a little inoculation motivationas well.


Ms. Sotomayor's involvement with the defense fund has so far received scant attention. But her critics, including some Republican senators who will vote on her nomination, have questioned whether she has let her ethnicity, life experiences and public advocacy creep into her decisions as a judge. It seems inevitable, then, that her tenure with the defense fund will be scrutinized during her confirmation hearings.


Sotomayor wasn't just a nominal member of the group, now called LatinoJustice PRLDEF:


But Ms. Sotomayor stood out, frequently meeting with the legal staff to review the status of cases, several former members said. And so across her 12 years on the board - she left when she was appointed a federal judge in 1992 - she played an active role as the defense fund staked out aggressive stances on issues like police brutality, the death penalty and voting rights.


The board monitored all litigation undertaken by the fund's lawyers, and a number of those lawyers said Ms. Sotomayor was an involved and ardent supporter of their various legal efforts during her time with the group.


The Times later connected the dots between Sotomayor's advocacy of quotas for blacks and Latinos when it came to New York Police Department promotional exams, and her curt dismissal twenty years later, as a U.S. Court of Appeals judge, of a complaint of reverse discrimination in a promotional exam case put forth by white firefighters in New Haven, Conn.


One of the legal defense fund's most important suits charged that a Police Department promotional exam discriminated against minority candidates. It was filed on behalf of the Hispanic Society of the New York police. The exams, the group charged, did not really measure the ability to perform in a more senior position, and were yielding unfair results: Too many whites were doing well, and too many Hispanics and African-Americans were not.


"We saw the lawsuit as a vehicle to level the playing field," said Mr. Perales. "It's important to understand that she and the rest of the board, in that context, shared the philosophy that we had to remove the barriers to the advancement of Latinos."


The suit resulted in a settlement with the city that produced greater numbers of promotions to sergeant for Latino and African-American officers.


Some white officers, however, felt that the settlement was unfair. They said that many white officers had outscored their Hispanic and African-American counterparts, yet were not allowed to fill the spots because of quotas. They sued, and their case, Marino v. Ortiz, reached the Supreme Court, where it failed by a 4-to-4 vote in 1988.


Two decades later, as a federal appellate judge, Ms. Sotomayor was again forced by a volatile case to confront the issue of promotion tests and race. She and her colleagues on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit were asked to review a ruling on a claim by white firefighters in New Haven, Conn., that they had lost promotions because of their race - even though they had performed well on the Fire Department's tests.


Judge Sotomayor voted to affirm the lower court's dismissal of the case, and her ruling is behind some of the most intense debate about her selection. Mr. Levey said that the employment discrimination case filed by the defense fund on behalf of Hispanic police officers raised questions about Judge Sotomayor's credibility in the New Haven case. "It adds to the conviction that this was not accidental, and that she had a very specific agenda here."