The marketing of Sonia Sotomayor

She hasn't ruled on hot-button issues, which puts her in a middle position - for now, anyway.

Kevin Dietsch/AP
President Barack Obama embraces U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor after announcing her as his Supreme Court Justice nominee to replace retiring Justice David Souter, at the White House in Washington on May 26, 2009. If Sotomayor is confirmed she will be the first Hispanic women to serve on the Supreme Court.

Liberal activists who have expressed reservations about Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor have done her a favor.

Instead of coming across as an unalloyed darling of the left, cheered by liberals and scorned by conservatives, she is now politically positioned in the “middle” -- exactly where a high court hopeful awaiting confirmation hearings wants to be.

Reaction to Judge Sotomayor has not been uniform among liberal groups that often make common cause, in large part because she does not have an extensive track record on many hot-button issues.

On abortion rights, the group NARAL Pro-Choice America came out immediately after Judge Sotomayor’s nomination with a letter urging senators to question her on Roe v. Wade, the foundational abortion-rights ruling of 1973. Sotomayor has ruled on abortion-related matters -- sometimes against the pro-abortion rights side -- but never on the core holding of Roe, that the Constitution protects the right to abortion as a matter of personal liberty.

Sotomayor’s position on gay rights has also never been clearly stated, and thus some gay rights groups are reacting the same way: Show us the love in your confirmation hearings, then we’ll love you back without reservation. Other controversial areas where Sotomayor does not have an extensive track record include the death penalty, church-state separation, and presidential power.

Ironically, then, this nominee with long judicial experience -- more than 16 years on the federal bench and participation in some 450 decisions -- is in a way a “stealth candidate.”

That raises the specter of David Souter, the justice she aims to replace, who was nominated to the court in 1990 by a Republican, President George H. W. Bush. Justice Souter came to Washington with a scant paper trail, and was assumed to be a reliable conservative but turned out to be the exact opposite. The first President Bush never lived it down. President Obama hardly seems headed for the same fate.

For every activist withholding enthusiasm for Sotomayor’s nomination, there are many times more liberal leaders waxing poetic about the prospect of the first Latina on the Supreme Court and about how her up-by-the-bootstraps life story will inform her jurisprudence.

Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote on his blog the day after Sotomayor’s nomination that “while the ACLU does not officially endorse or oppose US Supreme Court candidates, I have never been personally prouder of any appointment.”

Mr. Romero has much in common with Sotomayor. Both are of Puerto Rican descent and from public housing projects in the Bronx. Both also attended Princeton University. And while the openly gay Romero is keenly interested in gay rights -- on the same blog post, he expressed major disappointment in the California Supreme Court’s ruling on Tuesday upholding the referendum that banned gay marriage in that state -- he did not hold back in his excitement about Sotomayor over that issue.

In navigating those first crucial days post-nomination, the Obama administration and its allies have demonstrated an awareness of the importance of a successful rollout. Past failed high court nominations -- most famously, that of Judge Robert Bork in 1987 -- were doomed almost from the start, when opponents grabbed the megaphone early and caught supporters flat-footed.

Now, more than 20 years later, some big pro-Obama guns were up on TV with an ad supporting Sotomayor the day after she was tapped.

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Alliance for Justice, and People for the American Way banded together as the Coalition for Constitutional Values, which made the six-figure ad buy. The ad piggybacks on Obama’s popularity, using his voice as he laid out what he was looking for in a justice while Sotomayor’s credentials flashed on the screen. Top White House aides have been all over cable TV touting her virtues.

Tom Goldstein, a Supreme Court lawyer and influential blogger, declared Thursday afternoon that “it’s over” -- as in, Sotomayor will be confirmed. Of course, something could always come out on her that sinks her nomination, or she could stumble in her hearing.

But Mr. Goldstein virtually rules out her defeat based on her record as a judge -- the very record that has left some liberals standing back.

“The fact that she hasn’t written directly on most of the hot-button social issues -- abortion, gay rights, the death penalty, and separation of church and state -- left conservatives without a ready rallying point,” he writes.

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