- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 17, 2009

One month ago, the Belizean Grove was a quiet group of powerful women whose main activity was taking annual vacations in South American countries.

Today, the New York-based club finds itself caught up in Supreme Court confirmation politics, with Republican lawmakers raising questions about the group’s most famous member.

Federal appeals court Judge Sonia Sotomayor joined the group a year ago and went on her first trip last year to Peru. Her membership went largely unnoticed until she listed it on a Senate questionnaire in preparation for her July 13 confirmation hearings.

Now Republican lawmakers are raising concerns that her membership in a “discriminatory” private club violates American Bar Association ethical guidelines for judges. Judge Sotomayor this week defended the club, saying that despite its membership, it does not discriminate against men.

With the group’s policies now in the national spotlight, two men asked Tuesday about joining the club, said Belizean Grove founder Susan Schiffer Stautberg.

Ms. Stautberg, who founded the private club nine years ago, said the group is a response to the all-male clubs that have long fostered business connections and policy links for powerful men.

“I think we all need support in our lives,” Ms. Stautberg said. “We need time to relax; we need time to think. We’re all being nibbled at constantly all day, by e-mail.”

Gender politics have proved a minefield for male Supreme Court nominees. The wife of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. broke down in tears after aggressive questions at his 2005 Senate confirmation hearings about his reported involvement in a Princeton alumni group that opposed affirmative action.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy quit all-male clubs when they were being considered for the Supreme Court in the late 1980s, and Justice Harry Blackmun resigned his membership in the exclusive Cosmos Club in 1988.

The only two women to have sat on the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, were members of the women’s networking group, the International Women’s Forum, but their memberships did not become a major issue in their confirmation hearings.

Ms. Stautberg started the Belizean Grove as a response to the Bohemian Club - an all-male group whose vast Bohemian Grove property in Northern California has hosted an annual midsummer gathering for presidents, politicians, corporate executives, writers and artists for 130 years.

“We do not seek attention nor do we want attention,” Ms. Stautberg said. “We’re just a group of women who want to be supportive of each other and help each other survive and thrive. We’re not trying to get bigger. Bigger is not better; better is better.”

Belizean Grove found plenty of attention after Republican senators challenged Judge Sotomayor about what they say is an incomplete questionnaire and pointedly requested more information about the club.

“You state that you are a member of an organization, the Belizean Grove, that discriminates on the basis of sex,” Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee wrote in a letter to the White House last week.

Noting that the Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits membership in organizations that “invidiously discriminate” on the basis of sex, race and national origin, the lawmakers wrote, “Please explain the basis for your belief that membership in an organization that discriminates on the basis of sex nonetheless conforms to the Code of Conduct.”

A member of the women’s group came to Judge Sotomayor’s defense late last week, in a letter obtained by The Washington Times.

“I am a Republican and disheartened by those who are finding all sorts of silly reasons to criticize the current candidate for Supreme Court justice, Sonia Sotomayor,” lawyer and consultant Joan McEntee said in a letter Friday. “The latest is that she is a member of an ‘exclusive all-woman’s club’ that promotes gender discrimination, exclusion and Lord knows what else.”

Judge Sotomayor, responding directly to Republican concerns, insisted Monday that the Belizean Grove “does not invidiously discriminate on the basis of sex.”

In a written response, she added, “Men are involved in its activities - they participate in trips, host events and speak at functions - but to the best of my knowledge, a man has never asked to be considered for membership.”

The male-only Bohemian Club, which owns a secluded 2,700-acre spread near San Francisco, was founded by journalists in the mid-1870s and quickly attracted a membership of the local business and artistic elite. Prominent public officials and politicians, including every Republican president since Calvin Coolidge, have become members or spent time at the site.

Former Chief Justice Earl Warren spent summers at the encampment. Justice Clarence Thomas twice visited the Bohemian Club, according to financial disclosure forms, although it is unclear whether he is a member.

“We don’t talk about our members and provide information about who our members are or are not,” said Matt Oggero, a spokesman for the Bohemian Club.

Because of its secretive ways, the Bohemian Club has been darkly described by conspiracy theorists as a breeding ground for collusion among the elites and by social scientists as a playground for the rich and powerful.

Belizean Grove members insist that the club was founded for recreation and networking.

Ms. Stautberg said women looking to succeed have often been shut out of the networks of power and have had to seek nontraditional networks for support. She pointed to a Harvard study that said women on Wall Street developed networks outside their firms because they had trouble cracking the fraternal networks inside their companies.

Ms. Stautberg, who runs an agency that places women on corporate and charitable boards, came up with the idea for the group while on a scuba-diving trip with her son in Belize, the Central American nation that gave the club its name.

Judge Sotomayor joined the group in 2008, on the advice of member Mari Carmen Aponte. Judge Sotomayor delivered a speech at last year’s Peruvian retreat, which was attended by the U.S. ambassador to Lima and members of the Peruvian government.

Members are allowed to invite their spouses, partners and children on an “after-trip” following the annual South American retreat.

Mrs. McEntee, who runs an international business consulting firm and was a top Commerce Department official under President George H.W. Bush, said she remembered Judge Sotomayor being “very bright and very intelligent” and having “a lot of personal and professional insights.”

She said Republican lawmakers are only hurting themselves politically by going after Judge Sotomayor based on her membership in the group.

“If a man applied and wanted to join and he met the criteria, I can’t imagine there’d be any problem,” she said, “which I think is very different from the old exclusionary country clubs.”

Mrs. McEntee said that although the women “grovers” connect one another with jobs and board positions, she also has sought out men for these jobs.

• Tom LoBianco can be reached at tlobianco@washingtontimes.com.

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