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. Johnny DC

    I love people who are creative enough to invent hateful words like "Rethuglicans" but cannot spell 5th-grader words like stellar. Bravo, Liberal nutcases. Bravo.

    As for this woman, sure she is qualified. And she's a big hit with the hispanic voters. You cannot ignore her affirmative-action-type rulings in a few cases, though... which is troubling, to say the least.

    Other than that, all power to her. The court could use some opposition and strength on both sides... that's what makes it so balanced.

    July 8, 2009 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
  2. Sharon Kitchen

    quiet confidence is good.

    July 8, 2009 02:16 pm at 2:16 pm |
  3. franco

    I find her "Latina" comments to be racists! She does not belong in the court

    July 8, 2009 02:18 pm at 2:18 pm |
  4. FEMALES FOR FEMALES

    Another disgrace to this country about to take place.

    July 8, 2009 02:21 pm at 2:21 pm |
  5. chuck

    I knew that there must have been some deeper reason why Sotomayer ruled against the Conn. firefighters when the case was appealed to her. She took the side of the city which had good reason to believe that it would be up against very expensive civil rights violation lawsuits from the black firefighters if they did not void the test results. Those beliefs were well founded and Sotomayer agreed with these litigious possibilities. That didn't mean that she didn't like white firefighters or that she likes black firefighters more – which is what you would hear from some news outlets who conveniently left out much of the nuts and bolts of the story. Few news outlets went on to report this deeper reasoning. Most of us found out the full truth after reading the Supreme Court opinion. Most things look differently in the light of day when they are separated from partisan politicians and bias news agencies. Sotomayer will have no problem being confirmed and this topic is self explanatory. Any politician who harps on this topic for too long will look as if they really haven't read the Supreme Court case.

    July 8, 2009 02:22 pm at 2:22 pm |
  6. Don

    I am not hating everything the president does. But to appoint a Supreme Court Judge, the highest held position in the court who thinks that it is right to deny a (group) of more qualified personnel a promotion because they are white is dead wrong. The question was simply this; " Are you more qualified by the same standards as the next man" if so you get the promotion. But she thinks that affirmative action is still in place and it was a clear case of reverse discrimination on her part by sending down her findings. She is still operating with blinders on and no Judge in this position should ever take this type of a stance but be open minded as the law states.

    July 8, 2009 02:27 pm at 2:27 pm |
  7. Trade Freedom for Security, Lose Both

    Congress should confirm her quickly so they can get back to important business -like deciding if there should be a Michael Jackson stamp. Hey Congress, how about a stamp honoring the real heroes of our country?

    July 8, 2009 02:30 pm at 2:30 pm |
  8. J.P.

    I wonder if Ms. Sotomayor's house was on fire, would she accept the rescue of the white firefighter, or would she refuse and instead hang out waiting for a minority firefighter to rescue her?

    July 8, 2009 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  9. Steve

    We need people who are Constitutionists on the Supreme Counts and other Federal Courts to enforce the Constitution not their own personal beliefs.

    July 8, 2009 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  10. Darko

    she has to put on a show to get in. After that, it's whatever SHE feels like. There is no one but the other judges to check her. Sounds awefully familiar... someone claiming to moderate and then diving off the liberal cliff...

    July 8, 2009 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  11. Darko

    The libs smeared the hispanic that Bush picked... I didn't hear anyone, including La Raza, crying about it then. Hypocrits...

    July 8, 2009 02:34 pm at 2:34 pm |
  12. Alex

    Now if only Roberts, Alito, Scalia and Thomas would all do us the benefit of giving up their seats, maybe we could see some REAL justice in the high court!

    July 8, 2009 02:35 pm at 2:35 pm |
  13. Will-South Dakota

    The court needs more women, hopefully the next appointee is an Asian woman, or an African-American woman.

    July 8, 2009 02:36 pm at 2:36 pm |
  14. sarah

    The constitution is a living, breathing document that must be shaped as time goes by. I don't think the founders wanted it to be a static document for all time.

    July 8, 2009 02:36 pm at 2:36 pm |
  15. NAVY JACK

    The lifetime appointment of a judge that has repeatedly stated how her ethnicity and gender have endowed her with the ability to reach superior conclusions to "white men" doesn't meet the criteria of a present day SCOTUS justice.
    That is a blatant bias and women know it well.
    They have endured that discrimination for centuries !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    July 8, 2009 02:39 pm at 2:39 pm |
  16. Obamalism

    The court doesn't need more women... it doesn't need more minorities, more whites, more men, more anything...

    Justice is blind and so should the nominee's heritage,race, age, etc...

    There is 1 qualification for being a Justice. A clear understanding of the constitution and how it applies to the laws that CONGRESS passes... How laws affect different 'groups' of people should never be considered. Here is where Obama and Sotomayer agree and they are dead wrong about it.

    Their job is not to right the perceived wrongs of people. It's to strike down or affirm the laws of the land per the Constitution. If you think the Constitution needs to be amended.... call your Congressman...and hold your breath.

    July 8, 2009 02:47 pm at 2:47 pm |
  17. Dutch/Bad Newz, VA

    @ Duck Fallas

    Palin-Bachman 2012

    Don't make me choke on this peppermint. That's like the blind leading the blind.

    July 8, 2009 02:48 pm at 2:48 pm |
  18. Gonzo in Houston

    This whole thing is something of a farce. They will ask her about abortion, and she will talk for an hour without answering the question. They will ask her about various issues that might someday come up before the court, and she will not answer at length. They will make speeches and she will listen politely. A couple will try to rile her up, and she won't take the bait. In the end she will be approved by the judicial committee and the senate by a more-or-less party-line vote.

    This is non-political; it's the same pattern used in hearings for both parties and all ranges of nominees.

    July 8, 2009 02:48 pm at 2:48 pm |
  19. Kevin in Ohio

    @Michael M, Phoenix AZ July 8th, 2009 2:12 pm ET

    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.
    ____________

    Why WOULD they?????...... she will be confirmed without a challenge. DEMOCRATS filibustered. DEMOCRATS now have a filibuster proof majority. Your comment makes no sense.

    July 8, 2009 02:51 pm at 2:51 pm |
  20. Kevin in Ohio

    @Sniffit July 8th, 2009 1:30 pm ET

    ".... 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. "

    ____________

    No, we "take a stand" for the same reason you do.... because we believe its the right thing to do. You are right...if this super-majority works, we'll miss out on all the fun. But somehow I doubt that will be the case.

    July 8, 2009 02:55 pm at 2:55 pm |
  21. Zero.

    Sort a my question or the other guys. But neither will get the right answer.

    July 8, 2009 02:57 pm at 2:57 pm |
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