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September 23, 2014

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OPINION:

Upbringing works in judicial nominee’s favor

A summer dust storm. A one-room schoolhouse. A 46-mile hitchhike to get to school.

These are just some of the experiences that shaped me as a person, and by extension, as a senator for Nevada. Few would argue Abraham Lincoln’s childhood in a log cabin did not shape his character as a future president, or Madeleine Albright’s upbringing in war-torn Czechoslovakia did not influence her future as secretary of state.

President Barack Obama’s U.S. Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, has an incredible background and has overcome significant challenges to get to where she is today.

Sotomayor grew up in the South Bronx in New York in a family that had moved from Puerto Rico after World War II. At age 8, she was diagnosed with diabetes. A year later her father died and her mother raised her alone on a nurse’s salary. Sotomayor went on to Princeton and Yale Law School. She rose through the ranks of the legal profession, building one of the most extensive resumes any jurist or legal scholar could wish for.

She has been appointed to the federal bench by Republican and Democratic presidents. She has participated in more than 3,000 decisions since she joined the Second Circuit Court and has written 400 opinions. If confirmed, she would bring more experience to the Supreme Court than any justice in 100 years.

As a lawyer, I was impressed with her encyclopedic knowledge of case law and her sharp skills for insightful analysis during our recent meeting. As a person, I could relate to the woman sitting across from me — we both rose from improbable circumstances to our current positions.

I was born in a desert town to a hard rock miner and a mother who washed clothes for a living. I was educated in a school so tiny it either discouraged you from aspiring to anything or made you appreciate the true value of every opportunity in life. Searchlight, where I still live, is very different from the Senate, but it is synonymous with my background.

I am not alone. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, an Italian-American, concurs with this philosophy.

“When I get a case about discrimination, I have to think about people in my own family who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of religion or because of gender. And I do take that into account,” Alito said during his confirmation hearing.

So when Sonia Sotomayor talks about growing up as a Latina in 1960s New York, or being one of a handful of Hispanics in Princeton, it should not be interpreted as a bias. Rather, it is indicative of the insightful perspective she will bring to the High Court as she works to uphold the Constitution.

As I talked with Judge Sotomayor this past Tuesday and remembered my own childhood, I realized I was sitting across from a person who took hardship and turned it into the anvil that shaped her character.

Isn’t that what quintessential American stories are about?

Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, is majority leader of the U.S. Senate.

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