Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor said in a 1998 speech that she owed her first federal judicial nomination almost entirely to New York Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, undercutting the spirit of President Obama’s claim that it was Republican President George H.W. Bush who was responsible for her first appointment to the federal bench.
Mr. Obama and fellow Democrats have repeatedly pointed to her initial nomination to a federal district court by Mr. Bush in 1991, and her later elevation to an appeals court by President Clinton seven years later, as evidence she is a nonpartisan jurist.
But in her own account of her nomination, delivered in a speech to a Hispanic legal association, Judge Sotomayor recalled that she was only nominated - and only received a Senate floor vote - because of political horse-trading by Mr. Moynihan, the senior senator from New York, where Judge Sotomayor lived. Mr. Bush, Judge Sotomayor added, was far from an enthusiastic advocate for her nomination.
“Over the next twenty months, Senator Moynihan cajoled and pushed the Republican White House to nominate me. He traded other nominees in other states - some circuit and other district court - with the [White House] to get me ultimately nominated by President Bush,” Judge Sotomayor said, according to the text of the speech to the Cervantes Society.
The address was included in a voluminous record of the judge’s speeches, opinions and personal data delivered to the Senate Thursday in preparation for her confirmation hearings this summer. Mr. Moynihan died in 2003.
Judge Sotomayor’s blunt account of the backroom politicking involved in her nomination appears to undercut a refrain used by her supporters - including Mr. Obama - that she is the product of bipartisan presidential approvals.
“It is her experience in life and her achievements in the legal profession that have earned Judge Sotomayor respect across party lines and ideological divides,” Mr. Obama said in a weekly radio address last month. “She was originally named to the U.S. District Court by the first President Bush, a Republican. She was appointed to the federal Court of Appeals by President Clinton, a Democrat.”
Republicans and conservative activists have made the same argument about Mr. Moynihan’s role, but Judge Sotomayor’s words will likely give them much more ammunition.
Mr. Moynihan used an arrangement with the Bush White House to secure Judge Sotomayor’s nomination, she wrote in the 1998 speech. Back then, she wrote, New York’s two senators had a deal with the president that allowed the senator whose party controlled the White House to nominate three judges for every one judge that the other senator recommended. New York’s other senator at the time was Republican Alfonse D’Amato.
Mr. Moynihan used his one nomination for Judge Sotomayor and spent the next two years battling the Bush administration to secure her formal nomination.
The White House press office and the Senate Judiciary Committee did not return calls requesting comment.
In the Cervantes Society speech, Judge Sotomayor detailed a 1991 phone call she received from an attorney in the first Bush White House informing her that the president was unlikely to nominate her to the bench “because my senator was not cooperating.”
“As they guessed, I called Sen. Moynihan’s office and I learned that the White House wanted his cooperation in getting the Judicial Committee, chaired then by Democratic Sen. Joe Biden, to push out of the committee two Republican circuit court nominees,” Judge Sotomayor wrote. Mr. Biden, now Mr. Obama’s vice president, stood beside Mr. Obama at Judge Sotomayor’s nomination announcement at the White House last month.
“You would not be drawing a wrong conclusion in presuming that two circuit court judges owe their positions to my nomination and [to] Senator Moynihan’s dedication to making it happen,” she said.
Her 28-month confirmation battle did not end there. A “disgruntled senator” blocked the nomination of four female nominees, including Judge Sotomayor, until the Senate Judiciary Committee removed a hold on another nominee, according to her speech. Although Judge Sotomayor did not identify the “disgruntled” lawmaker in the speech, news reports from the time say Alabama Sen. Richard C. Shelby, then a Democrat, had blocked the nominations because of a separate hold placed on an Alabama prosecutor who supported the death penalty. Mr. Shelby later switched parties and now serves in the Senate as a Republican.