Analysis: Sotomayor Stays True to Herself

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 14, 2009, before the Senate Judiciary Committee. AP

The two sides of Sonia Sotomayor - a privately warm, smiling everywoman who likes baseball and eating out, and the serious, well-studied and steely jurist - both held up under three days of questions from 19 senators.

President Barack Obama's first Supreme Court nominee displayed both traits in charming some senators, disarming others and, most of all, not committing a single gaffe in a sure-footed performance this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Even critics conceded her confirmation in the next three weeks is assured.

Both faces are the same Sotomayor has worn in the 17 years she's been a fixture at the federal courthouse in Manhattan, the first six as a district judge, the last 11 as a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.

In the courthouse halls, she is respected for the compassion she shows when a court employee shares word of a close relative's illness and for her inclusive holiday parties. In court, she posed hard questions to attorneys and wouldn't let them off the hook until she got an answer.

This week, Sotomayor beamed warmth as she entered the hearing room each day and was greeted by a kiss from her mother, who raised her children in a South Bronx housing project with such an emphasis on education that one child is on the verge of becoming the nation's first Hispanic Supreme Court justice and the other is a doctor.

But as the chairman's gavel each day banged the committee to order and senators began firing questions at her, she transformed into the intensely focused 55-year-old jurist who chose each word as carefully as a diamond cutter works on a stone.

While listening to questions, she scribbled with a pencil or pen on a yellow pad, then spoke with a steady, slow pace, raising and lowering her outstretched hands on the black-clothed table before her for emphasis.

In the courthouse, Sotomayor has a reputation for precision in her questions and in her recollection of facts related to court precedents.

"Judges apply the law. They apply the holdings of precedent. And they look at how that fits into the new facts before them," she told the Senate committee.

Asked if she was a judicial activist, she said, "I don't use that word for judging. I eschew labels of any kind. That's why I don't like analogies. ... It's very dangerous to use analogies because they're always imperfect."

Republicans questioned her so many times about gun control, abortion, the role that judicial opinions in foreign countries should play and U.S. courts that senators started apologizing for raising them again and again.

To many of them, she offered answers that fell into a circular pattern and landed nowhere - a common occurrence in courthouse arguments as well as Senate confirmation hearings for nominees to all levels of the federal judiciary. Reactions included frustration and disappointment.

"What Americans want to see is what inside your gut says," Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said at one point in trying to elicit her views on gun restrictions and the Constitution's Second Amendment right to bear arms.

He asked if Americans have a right to defend themselves in their homes if they are attacked. "Just yes or no, do we have that right?" Coburn pressed.

"I know it's difficult to deal with someone like a judge," she replied calmly, explaining that under New York law people have the right to repel a threat if they face imminent death or very serious injury. But she said it might be left for a judge or jury to decide whether the threat was imminent enough.

"Looking at this as a judge, I'm thinking ... how an answer can differ so radically given the facts before you," she mused.

Only once did she indulge her reputation for being brusque, telling Coburn: "Senator, would you want a judge or a nominee who came in here and said, `I agree with you; this is unconstitutional' before I had a case before me, before I had both sides discussing the issues with me? ... I don't know that that's a justice that I can be."

But she also let out a big laugh when Coburn, an obstetrician by profession, talked about the difference between politicians and judges near the end of questioning and offered her some backhanded praise, commenting, "I doubt I could ever get to this stage of a confirmation process."

EDITOR'S NOTE - Larry Neumeister has covered the Manhattan
federal courthouse for the 17 years Sonia Sotomayor has been a
district and appeals court judge there.


More coverage of the Sotomayor confirmation hearings:

Firefighter Denounces Sotomayor Ruling

GOP Unable to Pin Sotomayor Down

Sotomayor Dodges Gun Rights Questions

Sotomayor Still Standing After Two Days

Sotomayor Pressed on Gun Rights

Republicans Aren't Sold on "Wise Latina" Explanation

Sotomayor Goes to Rope-a-Dope Strategy

Analysis: Sotomayor Has Been Very Cautious

Sotomayor: Abortion Law Is "Settled"

Sotomayor Promises "Fidelity to the Law"
By Larry Neumeister
  • CBSNews

Comments