July 8th, 2009
12:55 PM ET
5 years ago

Analysis: Sotomayor quietly prepares for high court confirmation hearings

Sonia Sotomayor spends her days in a small office next to the West Wing of the White House.
Sonia Sotomayor spends her days in a small office next to the West Wing of the White House.

WASHINGTON (CNN) – Judge Sonia Sotomayor's world these days is a tiny, plain office in the Eisenhower Office Building next door to the West Wing of the White House.

There she prepares for next week's confirmation hearings to become the 111th person to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. While a group of mostly young lawyers meet regularly with her, sources close to the judge say much of her time is spent alone, reading her past cases and speeches, taking notes - the monotonous, grinding work every high court nominee must go through to endure the intense scrutiny by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Away from her family, friends and colleagues in New York and the comfort zone of her judicial chambers - the federal appeals court judge has felt overwhelmed at times by the media attention and intense preparation, say sources close to her. But they say she remains focused and surprisingly upbeat about the unpredictable public stage she is about to take.

"She has always possessed this quiet confidence in herself, which really never crosses into over-confidence," said one longtime friend who asked not to be identified. "Sonia is proud of her record as a judge, proud of her upbringing, and proud of herself. She'll do well" in the hearings.

Democrats are confident as well, predicting the Bronx native will be ultimately confirmed. The hearings are expected to last no more than a week, with time for an opening statement from the nominee, and perhaps two days or more of questioning from senators. No vote by the full Senate - the last step in confirmation - has been scheduled, but President Obama has said he wants Sotomayor on the high court by the time lawmakers recess in early August.

The Bronx-born judge who sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has also met privately and separately with more than 70 senators, informal sessions where topics can range from serious discussions about judicial philosophy to chitchats about family and hobbies.

"It always helps to be nice, to have that winning smile. The more you can do these courtesy calls, the better it is. People get to know you before you enter the inner sanctum of the Supreme Court," said Ken Duberstein, who helped shepherd four high court nominees through the confirmation process in the Reagan and Bush 41 administrations. "Remember, if they're confirmed that's it. That's a lifetime appointment and these senators can do nothing about it."

Those who have survived the process say it is not much fun. Several current and past justices have noted the seemingly endless prep work, where every past case, every speech, every aspect of one's professional life needs to be reviewed, since one does not know what senators will ask. Some have privately called it an enormously draining experience - physically and mentally.

"So she's got to hit the books," said Thomas Goldstein, a leading Washington appellate attorney and founder of scotusblog.com. "They can ask you about any part of the law. And she's got to be ready for that and be able to sound intelligent answering those questions."

Some judges have likened the hearings to inquisitions, but one nominees can use to their advantage.

Sotomayor, like those before her, is undergoing intense mock confirmation hearings, private prep sessions where government and private lawyers pepper her with hypothethicals. Aides have studied the records of GOP senators on the committee and have offered possible questions that might be asked. Friendly Democratic senators on the committee work quietly with the administration to devise friendly lines of questioning. White House officials - past and present - have been careful to note they do not tell the nominee what to say, but will often advise them about how to frame an answer, or caution about saying too much.

"She has to maintain her judicial independence in a very political process," said Goldstein. "So it's a delicate dance and it involves an army of people."

Appearance matters too, as well as a good story to tell. Sources involved in the confirmation process say Sotomayor will spend much of her opening statement talking about her biography: the daughter of Puerto Rican parents, and the sacrifices her mother in particular made for her children. She will talk about living for a time in a Bronx housing project, about her Ivy League education, her work as a private attorney and a volunteer for a number of legal and charitable causes.

When the questioning starts, anything can happen.

"Everybody doesn't want to be asked one question," said Duberstein. "What's the one question - I always advise a nominee this - don't tell me, but prepare for an answer, because that question inevitably will be asked."

But if a nominee is asked about a hot-button issue like abortion or the death penalty, there is always the so-called "Ginsburg Rule" to fall back on. That was the moniker given when Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointedly and repeatedly refused to give specifics answers on sensitive topics during her Senate scrutiny. Lawmakers of both political stripes then - and now - did not object too strenuously.

A typical Ginsburg answer: "I must avoid giving an advisory opinion on any specific scenario. Because, as clear as it may seem to you, that scenario might come before me," she said. "I must avoid responding to hypotheticals, because they may prove not to be so hypothetical."

It has since become an unenforceable tradition, that subsequent judicial nominees have invoked.

That has many court watchers convinced the Sotomayor hearings will be a non-event, since Democrats now have a filibuster-proof majority. Even some Republican activists say privately there is nothing now in her known judicial and personal record to doom the nomination. But she will be hit with questions about her views on affirmative action, gun rights, and whether her Latina heritage would unfairly affect her judicial rulings.

"The trouble with Supreme Court nominations these days in confirmations, they take on all the attributes of political campaigns," said Duberstein, "from nasty attack ads to the expenditures of obscene amounts of money" by outside partisan groups. "That's unfortunate, but it's real and it's been going on 20 something years."

Sotomayor is taking all this in stride, colleagues say, somewhat anxious but undeterred. For solace, the judge talks daily with her mother, whom she calls the most important person in her life.

She took time out of her cram sessions June 25 to briefly celebrate her 55th birthday. Members of White House Counsel's Office gave her a framed, signed picture of her with President Obama and Vice President Biden the day her nomination was announced only a month earlier. A person close to her said she now feels like she has been reliving her entire life since then. In a way, she
has.


Filed under: Sonia Sotomayor • Supreme Court
soundoff (46 Responses)
  1. Kevin in Ohio

    I don't see why she needs to prepare....it'll be just another liberal lovefest.

    July 8, 2009 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  2. republicans = hate

    There is no reason why this woman with her steller education and career should be denied except by rethuglicans who oppose ANYTHING our President does. Why do rethugs hate this country so much?

    July 8, 2009 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  3. Duck Fallas

    I LOVE these ticker postings. You're ALL nuts! Please keep the crazy going!

    Palin-Bachmann 2012

    July 8, 2009 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  4. Dutch/Bad Newz, VA

    She'll have no problem getting confirmed. The GOP are going to try and make a big deal about the firemen reverse discrimination case.

    July 8, 2009 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  5. cjr

    the reublicans need to remember to play fair with this nomination- treat Judge Sotomayor with respect. Any indication that they try to mount a smear campaign or anything of that nature -will result in the wrath of the hispanic community This is an historic nomination with a very well qualified candidate. If republicans are smart – and there is mounting evidence – that they are not – they will make this a smooth nomination.

    July 8, 2009 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  6. RealityKing

    Why waste more tax dollars on hearings? Is there any doubt that she will be approved by our progressively liberal 111th Congres?? I mean.., her last over turned affirative action ruling alone was enough to seal that deal..

    July 8, 2009 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  7. R in Maine

    She will be a better judge than any of creeps from the Repubs. Get used to the idea.

    July 8, 2009 01:24 pm at 1:24 pm |
  8. demwit

    4 out of 10 is considered great in todays progressive grading system..

    July 8, 2009 01:25 pm at 1:25 pm |
  9. demwit

    Considering the crappy 111th Congress we have now, Sotomayor will make a great 111th person to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

    July 8, 2009 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  10. Enough

    Yup, they're prepping and coaching her and she needs lots of help to say the right thing, since her true opinion has already been released. She will be confirmed with the Democrats driving the boat, but she is an obvious mistake who was only nominated because she is a Latina woman. Just Obama pandering as usual!

    July 8, 2009 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  11. Pluto

    Should be a cinch; we already heard that the Dark Side thinks she might be a "reverse racist' based on something she said once in a discussion. What a bunch of piffle; if she hated Asians like old man McCain she'd be perfectly ok.

    July 8, 2009 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  12. Sniffit

    And even more quietly prepares her acceptance/thank you speach. Just size her up for the robe guys...we're looking at a 60-40 vote coming down the pipeline for this and everything else in the near future, solely because the GOP knows it can now "take a stand" against everything, no matter how important, in order to avoid any potential blame if anything goes wrong. Too bad for them they'll be missing out on taking credit when things go right. Doom and gloom, doom and gloom....you'd think they worked for Pfizer and wanted everyone on anti-depressants stat.

    July 8, 2009 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  13. Hugo

    Hopefully she will remember to wear her Depends! When the Republicans get done exposing her for what she is, she will need them!

    TORT LAW REFORM, REGULATE LAWYERS NOT INDUSTRY!

    July 8, 2009 01:35 pm at 1:35 pm |
  14. phonix86

    I guess she posseses a quiet confidence that the average White American Male would never have.

    July 8, 2009 01:37 pm at 1:37 pm |
  15. eddie123

    What part of NO for Ms Sotomayor to be on the Supreme Court. does the congress understand.... Most Americans of many back grounds and race do not want her on the Supreme Court. this looks like the Democrats can not and will not stand up to the Obama's....

    July 8, 2009 01:37 pm at 1:37 pm |
  16. S Callahan

    She'll do fine...listen much, respond appropriately..and trust God to guide you with your answers and all will be well. She is a good choice.....do your research, being truthful, and you'll have to agree.

    July 8, 2009 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  17. bozo the obama

    Highly under qualified for Supreme Court, but not for a La Raza liberal lawyer job.

    July 8, 2009 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  18. Fla.

    iVamos Sotomayor!

    Here's praying for a constructive confirmation process for a well-qualified nominee to the Supreme Court.

    Too many Republicans have already shown their disrespect (example: Senator Inhofe), which is sadly not surprising from my former GOP–no mas.

    The American Bar Association recently endorsed Judge Sotomayor, and she should be given a respectful confirmation process based on her astute qualifications for the job.

    July 8, 2009 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  19. UNHAPPY DEM

    She needs to go back to being whatever she was before being a judge in the first place. She will deteriorate individual freedoms if she is seated and will not be moderate about it.

    July 8, 2009 01:52 pm at 1:52 pm |
  20. John

    Go get 'em, Your Honor!

    July 8, 2009 01:56 pm at 1:56 pm |
  21. Terry from West Texas

    We need to do something about the Supreme Court. The five Conservative hacks who now have a majority will continue to stand in the way of progress and reform. We can only hope for their early retirement.

    Don't think I"m not a strict Constitutionalist. Judges should not change the Constitution. For example, the founding fathers clearly intended for Americans to be free to carry muzzle-loading powder-and-ball muskets and personal swords to militia meetings. I completely support this right.

    July 8, 2009 02:00 pm at 2:00 pm |
  22. awaitingliberalizationbyCNN

    All she has to do is breath ( a feat even the most incompetent liberal, look at Ted Kennedy can accomplish) and she is in for life, the very best and brightest the lis can offer.

    July 8, 2009 02:10 pm at 2:10 pm |
  23. nick

    Good Luck,Sonia. You deserve this appointment by your long history of fairness and equality under the law. Hang in there, you can get through this process, and then serve the American people in a way that we richly deserve.

    July 8, 2009 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  24. Michael M, Phoenix AZ

    You do notice that the Democrates are NOT calling for an immediate "up or down" vote like the Republicans did, even when they had the majority.

    July 8, 2009 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  25. Jon in CA

    Here is the question I would like to hear:

    "Ms Sotomayer – 7 out of your 8 cases appealed to the Supreme Court were overturned. If you failed to reach the correct conclusions as a lower court Judge – WHY should you be given the honored seat on the Supreme Court?"

    (Because you're Puerto Rican????)

    July 8, 2009 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
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