Sotomayor navigates Senate corridors on her way to confirmation hearing

Democrats push for July; GOP senators say they need more time to examine her record.

Susan Walsh/AP
Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor meets with Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., right, in his hideaway office on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday.

In Week 1 of “courtesy calls” on Capitol Hill, Judge Sonia Sotomayor gave a genial, thoughtful face to a high-stakes nomination to the US Supreme Court.

Topics ranged from Nancy Drew mysteries to the doctrine of stare decisis (respect for legal precedent). But by week’s end, she had won assurances on both sides of the aisle that her confirmation hearings (yet to be scheduled) will be fair and civil.

She also won a rare retraction from GOP activist and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who backed off an earlier comment that Sotomayor was a racist.

It’ll be the third Senate confirmation hearing for the US Court of Appeals judge for the Second Circuit in New York. But nothing fully prepares one for the sprint and high intensity of a Supreme Court nomination.

A flash of aqua in a sea of somber-suited minders, Sotomayor fast-walked nonstop appointments between Senate offices this week. While she refrained from speaking directly to the press, senators who met with her offered a glimpse at how she is addressing concerns about her nomination.

So far, the biggest flashpoint is her comment in a 2001 speech that she “would hope that a wise Latina woman, with the richness of her experiences, would more often than not reach a better conclusion that a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

In discussing this issue with senators, her responses ranged from assurances that “I’m bound by the law,” to light-hearted quips that she made a poor choice of words and won’t make that mistake again, said senators reporting on the conversations.

In the first wave of visits on Tuesday, Sotomayor told Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont that “one’s life experiences shapes who you are, but ultimately and a judge you follow the law.”

After meeting with Sotomayor on Wednesday, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D) of Rhode Island said that she “made clear that she wasn’t intending that remark at the time or ever to be a categorical statement that her life experience would make her wiser than a white male across the board.”

On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, also a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, credited her with saying “I’m bound by the law,” but said he was still troubled by the “wise Latina” remark.

“I think she deserves to be challenged. I think she needs to prove to me and others, not just me, but anybody out there who’s looking for an independent judge that, if they found themselves in litigation with a Latina woman...that she would give you a fair shake,” he said, after his June 3 “get-to-know-you” session with Sotomayor.

What personal contact can do is to put a face on nominees before the bright lights of a public hearing.

“We have so much in common. We both went to the same kind of schools with nuns, we both had very strong mothers, we’re both Nancy Drew fans, and we were both on debating teams,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland.

“She’s a bicycle rider. I’m a bicycle rider. We talked a little bit about our favorite routes,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York. “She’s a very human person of great legal mind. And I think that’s the right person to be on the Supreme Court.”

Sometimes, the face-to-face encounters can also put legal controversies in a broader, less partisan context.

“There’s a fairly long tradition of those courtesy calls,” says Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, who attended Sotomayor’s speech in which she made the "wise Latina woman" comment. “There is a value both in terms of educating the senators and making them more comfortable in a personal and professional way with the nominee.”

The speech, “Raising the Bar: Latino and Latina Presence in the Judiciary and the Struggle for Representation” was not controversial at the time and in context -- a law school conference in Berkeley, Calif., on the need to increase Latino representation on the federal bench.

“Other people on various panels said more radical things,” says Professor Tobias. “I don’t think anybody at the time thought that her speech was radical in any serious way.”

In between Senate visits on Thursday, Sotomayor returned a 171-page questionnaire for judicial nominees to the Senate Judiciary Committee offices -- a near record turnaround for a Supreme Court nominee, according to committee staff. But the date for her confirmation hearing is still in dispute.

Democrats want to set hearings before the August recess. Republicans say they need more time to vet her 17-year record of judicial decisions, speeches and comments.

“We could do them on Mondays and Fridays, when we’re not otherwise engaged,” quipped Sen. Arlen Specter (D) of Pennsylvania, after meeting with Sotomayor.

Specter is the former ranking Republican on the Judiciary committee. His party switch in April gives Democrats a 12-7 edge on the committee that votes Sotomayor’s nomination to the Senate floor. But, he says, “I’m going to reserve judgment until we follow the constitutional process."

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