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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Sotomayer First ‘Hispanic?’

Q: Would Sonia Sotomayor really be the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court?

A: Depending on your point of view, the late Benjamin Cardozo might be considered “Hispanic.”


Is Sonia Sotomayor really the first Hispanic nominated to the Supreme Court? Republicans in my office insist she is not.


This is something of an academic question. For Hispanic organizations applauding Judge Sotomayor’s nomination, there is no question that she is the first one of their own to be nominated to the high court.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, for example, issued a May 26 news release saying she would be “the first Hispanic and only the third woman on the highest court of the land, once confirmed.” Democratic Rep. Charles A. Gonzalez, 1st vice chair of the CHC, said, “President Obama’s nominee will be the first Hispanic on our nation’s highest court.” And the National Council of La Raza issued a news release with the headline: “Judge Sonia Sotomayor Would Be the First Hispanic on the Supreme Court if Confirmed.”

As a Spanish-speaking child of Puerto Rican parents, Sotomayor qualifies as Hispanic by any definition. But the term “Hispanic” could also be stretched to include an earlier Supreme Court justice, the late Benjamin Cardozo, depending on how one chooses to define the term. We won’t attempt to resolve that – it’s a matter of opinion – but we can offer the pertinent facts and let readers judge.

Cardozo was nominated to the high court in 1932 by President Herbert Hoover and was without question the second Jewish member of the court. He came from a family of Sephardic Jews that had been in the United States for generations. Cardozo’s biographer, Andrew Kaufman, says his immediate ancestors came here in the 1700s via England and Holland. He says “family legend” held that the Cardozo clan had earlier Portuguese roots, but that there is “no firm documentation about the particulars.”

So assuming that Cardozo could indeed trace some of his ancestors back to Portugal, does that make him “Hispanic”? Some Portuguese consider themselves to be Hispanic and some don’t.

Even the federal government can’t agree. The Census Bureau considers the term “Hispanic” to be the same as “Spanish” or “Latino” and does not include Portuguese Americans in that category. The federal Office of Personnel Management agrees, defining “Hispanic” as “[a] person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, or other Spanish cultures or origins,” and adding: “Does not include persons of Portuguese culture or origin.”;

But the Small Business Administration takes exactly the opposite stance, stating on page 48 of its manual for the 8(a) program to aid minority-owned businesses: “SBA has defined “Hispanic American” as an individual whose ancestry and culture are rooted in South America, Central America, Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, or the Iberian Peninsula, including Spain and Portugal.” Similarly, the Department of Transportation includes “persons of … Spanish or Portuguese culture or origin” under their definition of “Hispanic” for determining whether a business is a “Disadvantaged Business Enterprise” eligible to receive preference in government contracts. And the Library of Congress lists former Rep. Tony Coelho, a California Democrat whose grandparents were born in Portugal, among “Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822-1995.”

That publication, incidentally, was put together by the Government Printing Office at the direction of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which had admitted Coelho as a member. That’s the same caucus that now says Sotomayor would be the “first” Hispanic on the high court if confirmed.

-Brooks Jackson

Correction, June 4: We originally referred to Sotomayor’s parents as “immigrants,” which was not correct. Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, and Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since 1917.


CHC Applauds Historic Supreme Court Nomination.” Press release. Congressional Hispanic Caucus 26 May 2009.

NCLR LAUDS HISTORIC APPOINTMENT OF SOTOMAYOR TO NATION’S HIGHEST COURT; Judge Sonia Sotomayor Would Be the First Hispanic on the Supreme Court if Confirmed.” PressNational Council of La Raza, 26 May 2009.

Sherman, Mark. “First Hispanic justice? Some say it was Cardozo” The Associated Press, 26 May 2009.

Jones, Ashby. “Has the Supreme Court Already Had a Hispanic Justice?” Wall Street Journal “Law Blog,” 12 May 2009.

U.S. Census Bureau. “What does the term Hispanic or Latino origin mean?” Frequently Asked Questions Web page, accessed 28 May 2009.

8(a) Business Development Program Standard Operating Procedure” Chapter 2D, Paragraph 3(a)(1)Small Business Administration 11 April 2009: 48.

Disadvantaged Business Enterprise,” Office of Civil Rights, Federal Highway Administration. Frequently Asked Questions Web page, accessed 28 May 2009.

Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822-1995.” Government Printing Office, 1995.