Sotomayor's diabetes helps shape views on discrimination

McClatchy NewspapersMay 27, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Judge Sonia Sotomayor must inject herself regularly with insulin, a regime that keeps her diabetes at bay and that also could help shape her approach to discrimination issues, among others, as a potential Supreme Court justice.

Far from being a secret, Sotomayor's medical condition — first identified when she was 7 — is part of her larger narrative. It's both a burden and a life experience she carries with her when judging cases.

"When she was diagnosed . . . she was informed that people with diabetes can't grow up to be police officers or private investigators like Nancy Drew," President Barack Obama said in introducing Sotomayor this week. "In essence she was told she'd have to scale back her dreams. "

Instead, Obama said, Sotomayor's perseverance in the face of the disease shows that "no dream is beyond reach in the United States of America."

Sotomayor has had to make her diabetes part of the public record while undergoing previous Senate confirmation scrutiny.

"My condition is permanent and subject to continuing treatment," Sotomayor said in a 1997 Senate questionnaire. "It does not impair my work or personal life."

Arguably though, it influences the way she considers discrimination disputes, among others. Although William Marshall, a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said Wednesday that Sotomayor "has been on both sides of discrimination cases," she's certainly been sympathetic to plaintiffs with disabilities.

In 2001, for instance, Sotomayor ruled in favor of Marilyn Bartlett, a dyslexic woman who'd failed the New York state bar exam five times. Sotomayor agreed that Bartlett should get four days instead of the usual two to take the rigorous test.

Bartlett's experts "have convinced me that the extra time provided to learning-disabled applicants merely levels the playing field and allows these individuals to be tested on their knowledge; it does not provide them with an unfair advantage," Sotomayor reasoned.

Two years earlier, Sotomayor ruled in favor of a native of the Dominican Republic named Ysabel Rosa. Rosa had been injured when a refrigerator door fell against her while she working in a kitchen. Though skeptical Social Security officials denied her benefits, Sotomayor noted that there were "numerous gaps in the administrative record" concerning the "non-English speaking claimant."

Stevedore Victor Marinelli, likewise, won full disability compensation under a Sotomayor ruling in 2000. The next year, however, Sotomayor sided with other 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges in agreeing that the Franklin Covey Co. hadn't discriminated against a store manager named Rochelle Saks by denying her insurance coverage for infertility treatments.

If the Senate confirms Sotomayor, she won't be the only Supreme Court justice to cope with a significant health condition. Chief Justice John G. Roberts has suffered seizures. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has survived bouts of colon and pancreatic cancer. Justice John Paul Stevens, who's 89, underwent radiation therapy for prostate cancer in 1992.

Diabetes renders the 54-year-old Sotomayor more susceptible to heart disease, blindness, nerve damage and kidney damage. An estimated 23 million Americans — 8 percent of the population — have diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association.

"The advancements in the management of . . . diabetes have been just amazing over the last two decades and the ability of people to manage their diabetes successfully has been proven," association President R. Paul Robertson said in a statement.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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