On Wednesday, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, a daughter of immigrants, and Sonia Sotomayor, the nation’s first Latina Supreme Court justice, will meet on the largest stage in the country in an attempt to reset a nation in crisis.
Harris and Sotomayor will exchange only a few words as they recite and repeat the vice presidential oath, but their presence will mark perhaps the strongest visual cue of an abrupt change of course.
In choosing Sotomayor to administer the oath, Harris picked an ideological sister who has journeyed the same path, littered with familiar obstacles, to mark a turn in the direction of the country. As Sotomayor delivers the 71 words of the oath, Harris will become the first female Black vice president, a woman born of an Indian mother and a Jamaican American father, and she will join Sotomayor in a small society of women at the top echelon of government.
Harris was inspired by Sotomayor’s legacy, a source familiar with the decision said.
For progressives — especially young women, daughters of immigrants, African Americans, Indian Americans, Jamaican Americans, Latinas, children of the projects — the sight of the two women together will send a strong signal as a new government settles.
Harris is the daughter of Donald Harris, an economist and professor emeritus at Stanford, and the late Shyamala Gopalan Harris, a civil rights crusader and breast cancer researcher born in India.
CNN’s Abby Phillip asked Harris last week about her mother.
“Do you think that she always saw this for you, in you? Did she raise you to do this?” Phillip inquired.
“She did not raise me to be vice president of the United States” Harris answered, laughing. “But she did raise me and my sister to believe that we could do anything if we put the hard work into it — and there you are.”
At her own confirmation hearing in 2009, Sotomayor praised her mother, Celina Baez, and recalled her family in similar fashion. Sotomayor’s parents left Puerto Rico during World War II and she grew up in modest circumstances in a Bronx housing project. Her father, Juan, a factory worker with a third-grade education, died when she was 9 years old, and her mother was left to raise Sotomayor and her brother alone.
“The progression of my life has been uniquely American,” Sotomayor said, noting that her mother had taught her the key to success was a good education. “And she set the example, studying alongside my brother and me at our kitchen table so that she could become a registered nurse.”
This will be Sotomayor’s second time administering the vice presidential oath. She swore in Biden in 2013 for his second term as vice president.
And to be sure, Harris and Sotomayor share a similar ideological outlook — and an unwavering distaste for the policies of President Donald Trump.
Harris has attacked the President from the political arena, opposing his politics. As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, she kept a close watch on Trump’s objectives to transform the judiciary. She grilled his Supreme Court nominees, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, as well as the myriad of lower court judges who came before the committee as Trump, with a singular focus, transformed the face of the courts.
Already Harris has chosen to populate her new staff with an unusual number of individuals who see judicial nominations as a priority, unlike the early days of the Obama administration.
Sotomayor, from her perch outside the political realm, fiercely pushed back during the last four years over the legality of Trump’s controversial policies that ricocheted through the courts.
Just last week her concerns were evident in a case involving federal executions.
Last Friday, with the execution of Dustin John Higgs, the government executed its 13th inmate in six months. Back in July 2019, then-Attorney General William Barr reinstated the federal death penalty after a nearly two-year pause despite questions surrounding its chosen drug protocol and calls for more deliberation.
The country may have been distracted by the proceedings against the twice-impeached Trump, but Sotomayor issued a late-night, 10-page dissent. Putting the government’s action into context, she said, “The Federal Government will have executed more than three times as many people in the last six months than it had in the previous six decades.” Citing arguments made by the inmates and judges in lower court opinions that had been reversed, Sotomayor wrote, “This is not justice.”
Earlier this month, when the court granted the Trump administration’s request to reinstate restrictions for patients seeking to obtain a drug used for abortions early in pregnancy, Sotomayor, joined by Justice Elena Kagan, dissented. She called the Food and Drug Administration’s requirements an “unjustifiable, irrational and undue burden on women seeking an abortion” during a pandemic.
Addressing the incoming administration, she added: “One can only hope that the Government will reconsider and exhibit greater care and empathy for women seeking some measure of control over their health and reproductive lives in these unsettling times.”
On Wednesday, Trump will not be on the stage, having decided to break with the usual protocol as he leaves office. But the two women, who have blazed similar trails, will recite the oath as the nation eyes a new chapter.