President Obama made history Tuesday by announcing his plan to nominate the first Hispanic to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying appeals court Judge Sonia Sotomayor has an “inspiring” life story similar to his own and can employ an empathetic “common touch” on the bench.
While Judge Sotomayor, 54, presented herself as an ordinary woman with humble roots, the White House boasted that her 17-year jurist credentials give her more experience than Supreme Court nominees chosen over the past century, and aides insisted their vetting process had been exhaustive.
“Even as she has accomplished so much in her life, she has never forgotten where she began, never lost touch with the community that supported her,” Mr. Obama said, adding that his pick will bring “the knowledge and experience acquired over a course of a brilliant legal career [and] the wisdom accumulated from an inspiring life’s journey.”
The terms that the president used to describe Judge Sotomayor’s upbringing in the projects of the South Bronx in New York match the “empathy” criteria that he laid out when first considering a nominee to succeed retiring Justice David H. Souter.
• Sotomayor battled bias in D.C.
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• Sotomayor deflected Republicans before
• Sotomayor reversed 60% by high court
With her family beaming in the audience, Judge Sotomayor said that her “wealth of experiences” have guided her as a jurist as she attempts to understand the perspectives of all litigants in the courtroom and her colleagues on the bench.
“I strive never to forget the real-world consequences of my decisions on individuals, businesses and government,” said Judge Sotomayor, currently serving on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.
Republicans kept relatively quiet Tuesday, promising to offer her a fair hearing, but conservative interest groups were readying for battle with a nominee whom they blasted as a liberal activist whose speeches and rulings make her questionable for the court.
“This nomination raises serious questions about the issue of legislating from the bench,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice.
Liberal activists were just as eager for a fight. MoveOn.org promised to mobilize its 5 million members to urge a quick Senate confirmation.
The Constitutional Accountability Center said it is clear Judge Sotomayor has a record of ruling “based on the Constitution and the law, not on her own personal political views.”
Judge Sotomayor’s opponents also are likely to flag Mr. Obama’s “no” votes on both of President George W. Bush’s nominees, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., actions that make Mr. Obama the first president in history to have voted against Supreme Court picks.
The political hands at the White House said they didn’t want to view the upcoming confirmation hearings as a “war” but prepared for a fight by offering Judge Sotomayor’s credentials and pointedly noting her nomination to the federal bench came from President George H.W. Bush, a Republican. They also said Mr. Obama is the first president to have spoken with each member of the judiciary panel as he made his decisions, even though he did not run names by any of them until he’d chosen Judge Sotomayor.
The White House team initially reviewed “voluminous” substantial legal writings by more than 40 possible candidates and had “direct contact” with nine contenders, advisers said.
“There couldn’t be a more serious appointment than someone to a lifetime on the Supreme Court. I don’t think there is any stone that’s been left unturned,” said a senior administration official, speaking to reporters on background.
White House press aides declined to give a reason for the conditions of anonymity, which The Washington Times and others protested.
Last week, Mr. Obama personally spent one hour each in the Oval Office with the four front-runners - Judge Sotomayor, Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Diane Wood.
Judge Sotomayor’s interview - her first-ever meeting with Mr. Obama - was Thursday, the same day he hosted the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers at the White House. The officials said the two discussed legal theory and the Constitution and that in all she spent seven hours at the White House.
The president told his aides Friday of his inclination toward Judge Sotomayor but wanted to spend the weekend thinking about it.
After some time with his family at Camp David, Mr. Obama came to his final decision at 8 p.m. Monday night, phoning each contender from the presidential study in the East Wing of the White House to let them know. On Tuesday morning, he also phoned Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy and ranking Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions to inform them of his decision.
The nomination advanced Mr. Obama’s previously stated goal of having a Souter successor confirmed by the U.S. Senate in time for the court opening session Oct. 5. Instead, the president and his advisers said Tuesday that he wants her in place after Labor Day to help deliberate about which cases to accept for the new term.
The Senate confirmed Judge Sotomayor to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York by unanimous consent in August 1992, and she was confirmed to the 2nd Circuit 67-29 in 1998 after being nominated by Democratic President Clinton. All 29 votes against her came from Republicans, including Mr. McConnell, Mr. Sessions and 2008 Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain.
The White House rebuts that point by noting she was supported by a wide variety of senators - “from progressive Democrats to [highly conservative Sens.] Jesse Helms and Rick Santorum” during her past confirmation.
Aides said when Mr. Obama was done meeting with Judge Sotomayor, he was struck by her approach to the bench, including her ability to bridge ideological differences on the court, a skill her colleagues appointed by Republican presidents said allowed her to help produce consensus opinions.
“He left that meeting with a reinforced sense that she would be very effective,” said an official who debriefed with the president about each interview.
Other potential choices were asked to submit detailed questionnaires. The officials described the process as “very, very rigorous.”
Among the vetting considerations were Judge Sotomayor’s taxes and her diabetes, which White House aides discussed with her doctors and outside doctors.
White House advisers said Judge Sotomayor was “in the mix” for a long time, perhaps as early as the presidential transition when potential names were compiled.
They also said Mr. Obama believed any of his finalists would face an easy confirmation and stressed that Judge Sotomayor’s personality will help her be her own advocate on Capitol Hill as she meets with senators in coming days and weeks.
“The more the American people see of Sonia Sotomayor, the more they are exposed to her experience, her judgment and her personality, I’m convinced she’ll win them over,” an official said.
The White House also packaged her story, her Princeton yearbook page and family photos for mass distribution, and the former Obama campaign now called Organizing for America distributed a video by the president announcing his choice.
Judge Sotomayor will not be taking formal leave from the bench but will not be hearing any new cases.
Judge Sotomayor would be the third woman in history to serve on the court, but, if appointed, she is not expected to change its balance. Justice Souter, despite being nominated by George H.W. Bush, was a decidedly liberal jurist, repeatedly siding with the minority in 5-4 rulings of the conservative-leaning high court.
She joins the only other female justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose health may offer Mr. Obama a second opportunity in the near future to put his imprint on the high court. She is expected to retire because she is battling pancreatic cancer even though she has continued to serve while undergoing treatment.
As the White House and Judge Sotomayor recognized her family during the East Room ceremony, lawmakers statements flooded in recognizing the judge of Puerto Rican descent as embodying the “American dream.”
Gov. Luis Fortuno of Puerto Rico, a Republican, lauded the choice as “history in the making” and former Republican Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales told CNN, “This is a powerful message, a powerful message of hope and opportunity through this appointment.”
The president’s pick ensures Democrats will continue to build broad support in the growing Hispanic electorate, a key voting bloc that overwhelmingly sided with him last fall despite Republican gains in previous years.
Judge Sotomayor, who is divorced and has no children, fits that description, having worked her way up from a hardscrabble childhood. She was raised by a single mom who wiped away tears during the announcement Tuesday.
The meaning didn’t escape Judge Sotomayor, whose own eyes glistened as she spoke from the White House by the side of the first black president.
“I hope that as the Senate and the American people learn more about me they will see that I am an ordinary person who has been blessed with extraordinary opportunities and experiences. Today is one of those experiences.”