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Can this Latina law professor tapped by Biden help reform the Supreme Court?

Cristina M. Rodríguez, a professor at the Yale Law School and co-chair of President Joe Biden’s high court commission, is described as a sophisticated legal thinker.
Image: Cristina M. Rodriguez, a professor at Yale Law School, will co-chair a commission examining the Supreme Court.
Cristina M. Rodriguez, a professor at Yale Law School, will co-chair a commission examining the Supreme Court.Yale Law School

A Latina law school professor has been tasked with examining the future of one of the country's three branches of government.

President Joe Biden has signed an executive order creating a presidential commission to study whether the Supreme Court should be overhauled, and he has named Yale Law School professor Cristina M. Rodríguez as its co-chair. Rodríguez and Bob Bauer, a professor at the New York University School of Law, will head the bipartisan commission to examine arguments both for and against a reform.

Rodríguez’s appointment to the commission earned praised from colleagues. “Cristina Rodríguez is absolutely up for this task. She is a sophisticated legal thinker and a good leader,” Kevin R. Johnson, dean of the University of California, Davis, School of Law, told NBC News. “I think that Biden has great confidence in her, and that his administration wanted somebody who would get the job done well, and in a deliberate and inclusive way.” 

Along with Bauer, Rodríguez will preside over the commission that will study topics such as length of service, turnover of justices, membership and case selection. The commission includes some of the nation’s best-known legal scholars and experts: Laurence H. Tribe of the Harvard Law School, Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, and Andrew Crespo, also of the Harvard Law School. Crespo, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, was the first Latino president of the Harvard Law Review. 

“She (Rodríguez) is not overly ideological or doctrinaire,” Johnson said. “She is someone who will make sure that we don’t see a politicization of the commission. As co-chair, she will bring a level of calm and thoughtfulness to any discussion she is involved in.”

Rodríguez, whose father is from Cuba and her mother from Puerto Rico, grew up in a bilingual household in San Antonio and attended Yale College and the Yale Law School. She studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, as well.  She became Yale Law’s first tenured Hispanic faculty member in 2013. Prior to that, she served for two years as the deputy assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice, and also clerked for then-Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Rodríguez’s legal background and training make her a member of an elite group. According to a 2018 report by the Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA), Latinas comprised less than 2 percent of U.S. lawyers, and just 1.3 percent of law professors.

Rodríguez is well-suited for her new role, according to Elia Diaz-Yaeger, national president of the HNBA. “It is a huge job, and it is important to have someone from outside of the political arena,” she said. “Rodríguez is a scholar of the law, she analyzes verbiage and what the Constitution says, and her work has focused on constitutional theory and administrative law.”

Diaz-Yaeger said that she was excited to see the diverse perspectives and backgrounds represented on the commission. In her view, discussions about Supreme Court reform or restructuring could be constructive. “The size of the court has actually fluctuated throughout history – and we want the court to be representative of the people whose lives their decisions are affecting.”

Limited polling suggests that Latinos may be open to the idea of Supreme Court reform. A 2019 Quinnipiac poll found that 63 percent of Hispanics believed that the Supreme Court was mainly motivated by politics, and 61 percent of Hispanics said that it should be restructured to reduce the influence of politics. And this was before the rushed confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett in 2020 made the issue of reform even more contentious.

Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said a discussion of potential Supreme Court reform is both timely and necessary.

“What is happening now, this talk of restructuring, was precipitated by the events of the last few years, the completely inconsistent treatment of a vacant court seat following [Antonin] Scalia’s passing as compared to that when Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed," he said. "When that kind of political overreach occurs, it’s appropriate to review what ought to change.” He noted that Supreme Court justices, who serve lifetime appointments, may not be well situated to understand the concerns of the Latino community.

Saenz pointed out Rodríguez's expertise in immigration law. In 2020, Rodríguez co-authored a book, “The President and Immigration Law."

“Her informed perspective matters, as the Supreme Court has not been very adept when it comes to immigration and immigrants’ rights issues," he said.

“I am pleased that Rodríguez was selected as co-chair,” he said. “However, I am concerned with the composition of the commission as a whole.” The two co-chairs, he pointed out, will likely play a convening role, but decisions will be made by the commission, and he noted that the group's Latino members (Rodríguez and Crespo) are academics, not legal practitioners. "So I have concerns there," he said.

The Supreme Court commission will hold public meetings and then issue a report with its findings and recommendations.

Rodríguez's appointment matters for visibility, Diaz-Yaeger said. “When I was growing up, I didn’t know of any Latino or Latina lawyers in high-powered positions," she said. "Any opportunity for a Latino or Latina to reach such positions shows Latino children and young adults that you can reach those pinnacles; you can reach the highest positions and do well in them.”

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