Sotomayor Dazzles in Interviews, Senators Say

Published June 13, 2009

| AP

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor has bonded with female senators about her childhood love of Nancy Drew girl detective mysteries and shared war stories with the Senate's former prosecutors about her days in the gritty Manhattan district attorney's office.

Slogging through dozens of personal, one-on-one meetings with senators that amount to a high-stakes job interview, she has impressed her questioners with an engaging personality and life story -- even those lawmakers with big reservations about her views on the law.

It's all part of a delicate sales pitch as Sotomayor seeks confirmation to become the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice. Senators sometimes are moved as much by the telling personal detail or common hobby as they are by a sterling resume and sharp legal mind.

Sotomayor noticed a bicycle figurine on a shelf in the office of Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, and chatted about her love of cycling. She spoke in Spanish to Cuban-born Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican. She talked about losing her father at an early age with Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, whose dad also died when he was young. She gossiped with Democratic senators who support her about how to handle potential critics and the trickier personalities on Capitol Hill.

"I told her the most important thing is to be yourself because she's such a powerful presence and such a powerful person," said Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, her unofficial adviser during the confirmation process. "When you meet her person to person, sitting across a table a couple of inches apart, her personality -- you know, it's shining, it's strong, comes through."

The "courtesy calls" are, by tradition, an opportunity for nominees to introduce themselves to senators in a private setting, all while showcasing their qualifications, stroking egos and avoiding getting pinned down on any legal issue that could come back and haunt them in public hearings.

Rejected Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork bombed in his interviews in 1987, coming across as pompous and cold. Anthony Kennedy used them to pave his way to a smooth confirmation, flattering senators by quoting their own speeches back to them and complimenting their lawyering skills.

Former President George W. Bush withdrew his nomination of Harriet Miers shortly after an awkward dispute she had with Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, then the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. At issue was what she had said during their private talk about the right to privacy, an underpinning of the high court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision establishing abortion rights.

By most accounts, Sotomayor has made no such missteps, leaving senators with a positive first impression even as some of them voice serious concerns about her nomination.

She has won points for frankness, addressing head-on and at length a 2001 speech in which she said she hoped a "wise Latina" would reach better conclusions than a white male. She's scored with her personality and poise.

"I found her very warm and engaging," said Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, who several times used the word "passionate" to describe Sotomayor and her approach to reaching decisions.

Sotomayor has managed to disarm even senators who came prepared not to like her. Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, went in thinking "she would be aggressive and maybe even a little obnoxious."

"I would classify her as kind of much friendlier ... more reserved, less aggressive," than he expected, Grassley told reporters later.

Sotomayor, a federal appeals court judge, raised in a Bronx housing project in a Puerto Rican family and educated at elite Ivy League universities -- Princeton and Yale Law School, shared details with her interviewers about how she thinks and works. She delved into detailed explanations of how she goes about reaching and writing her legal decisions.

"She comes across as somebody with a very strong personality who has a very clear sense of who she is and what she stands for," said Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican.

He said he came away from their talk believing Sotomayor would be a justice in the mold of Antonin Scalia -- someone "who isn't going to be shy about being an aggressive questioner and presenter of her views and thoughts on the bench."

Some senators have been frustrated by Sotomayor's ultra-smooth performance, including her adherence to the cardinal rule of courtesy calls that Miers broke: Don't paint yourself into a corner with private answers that could dog you in public.

Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, came away irked when Sotomayor refused to take a firm stand on gun rights or the question of whether an unborn child has rights, something she told him she had never thought about.

"You've got to study each senator, and each one's different -- some you've got to schmooze, some you've got to be analytical," said Tom Korologos, a veteran chaperone of Republican nominees to the high court, including William Rehnquist, who became chief justice, and Bork.

But the one rule that applies to everyone is, Korologos added, is, "You've got to be very careful with your answers. You can't get pinned down."

The interviews -- more than 50 packed into a few days -- haven't been flawless for Sotomayor, who was nominated by President Obama to replace retiring Justice David Souter.

At one point, while chatting with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, in front of news cameras before their private visit, she appeared to forget which senator she had met with just a few hours before.

It was Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who later said he didn't mind. He connected with the judge as they compared notes about which of them had a worse office when starting out as a young prosecutor after law school. "She actually won," Whitehouse said.

Indeed, the only major stumble Sotomayor seems to have made came as she hurried to her plane at New York's LaGuardia Airport, tripping and breaking her ankle -- and then boarding her flight to Washington anyway to sit through another week of Senate meetings.

She spent much of the past week camped out in a Capitol office with her right leg elevated, having interviewers come to her. Even then, senators noted, Sotomayor managed to maintain the protocol of a good job interview.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, was impressed by her "humility," he said, when Sotomayor stood -- cast and all -- to greet him.

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