President Obama nominated federal judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court yesterday, putting her in line to become the nation's first Hispanic justice and creating a difficult political equation for Republicans as they weigh how aggressively to fight her appointment.
An all-out assault on Sotomayor by Republicans could alienate both Latino and women voters, deepening the GOP's problems after consecutive electoral setbacks. But sidestepping a court battle could be deflating to the party's base and hurt efforts to rally conservatives going forward.
In introducing Sotomayor at the White House yesterday morning, Obama hailed the 54-year-old appeals court judge as an accomplished and "inspiring" individual with a compelling life story. She would replace Justice David H. Souter, who was appointed by President George H.W. Bush but became a reliable member of the court's liberal wing.
Senate Republicans responded with restraint to the announcement yesterday, and their largely muted statements stood in sharp contrast to the fractious partisanship that has defined court battles in recent decades. Leading conservatives outside the Senate, however, did not hold back, targeting a pair of speeches in which Sotomayor said appellate courts are where "policy is made" and another in which she said a Latina would often "reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
Critics also targeted her support for affirmative action, with Rush Limbaugh calling her a "reverse racist" in his syndicated radio program, citing a case in which she ruled against a group of white firefighters who claimed discrimination in hiring practices.
White House officials argued that the comments in the speeches were taken out of context, and they said that the firefighters case was an example of Sotomayor accepting established precedent, something they said conservatives should applaud. Senate Democrats, meanwhile, who are on the verge of controlling a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority in the Senate, warned Republicans of the dangers of pushing too hard against Obama's first court pick.
"They oppose her at their peril," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said of his GOP colleagues and conservative activists who are leading the court fight. "I think this process is going to be more a test of the Republican Party than of Sonia Sotomayor."
Conservative interest groups have been warily preparing for the prospect of Sotomayor's nomination since word of Souter's retirement first circulated last month, viewing her as among the most liberal contenders for the appointment. But some Senate GOP officials privately conceded that, barring a major stumble, the judge will probably be confirmed with relative ease.
"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that we need to tread very carefully," said John Weaver, a Republican political consultant who advised Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for years. "The only way we'll find ourselves in a political predicament is if we don't treat her with the same respect that other nominees received."
"If she answers questions in a crazy way, then that's one thing," said one senior Republican aide who participated in strategy discussions. "But the immediate reaction is not to just try and bring her down."
Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, did not comment on Sotomayor's qualifications for the nation's highest court yesterday but indicated that he was not inclined to rush the confirmation process.
"We must remember that a Supreme Court justice sits for a lifetime appointment, and the Senate hearing is the only opportunity for the American people to engage in the nomination process," Sessions said in a statement. "Adequate preparation will take time."
Senior White House officials said the key to what they hope will be a 72-day campaign to confirm Sotomayor by Aug. 7, the start of the Senate's month-long recess, is to ensure that they retain control over the story line of the judge's life and career. A senior White House official said the administration had mapped out four distinct phases of what officials hope will be the path to an easy confirmation: the first 24 to 72 hours of the rollout; the period between the rollout and the start of Sotomayor's Judiciary Committee hearing; the hearing process itself; and the period between the hearing and the Senate floor vote.
"We have to keep control of the narrative, to make sure that her story doesn't get told by someone else," the senior aide said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy. Within hours of the announcement, White House officials and Senate Democrats circulated favorable quotes about Sotomayor from Republicans, including former senator Alphonse D'Amato of New York, who supported her 1992 appointment to the federal bench by President George H.W. Bush.
Schumer, who is Sotomayor's senior home-state senator, will take the lead in introducing her to his colleagues, officials said. One Democratic aide who is helping to manage the nomination said that to minimize potential missteps, Sotomayor will pay courtesy visits to Judiciary members "and then disappear" until the confirmation hearings begin.
Senate Democratic aides said one factor working in Sotomayor's favor is her long public record as a federal judge. The confirmation of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., for instance, was slowed while the committee sought to extract records from the nominee's executive branch service from the Reagan presidential library. But no such obstacles appear to threaten information gathering on Sotomayor, aides said.
White House officials were scrambling to prepare materials to transmit to the Judiciary Committee yesterday. The nominee will submit an extensive committee questionnaire in the coming days, and a law enforcement background check is already underway, as is an effort to gather all of her judicial opinions. But if Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sessions fail to reach agreement on a time frame for moving forward, and Republicans elect to exercise their right to procedural delays, the confirmation process could easily spill into September, giving Sotomayor's opponents four additional weeks to attempt to derail her nomination.
Sotomayor is no stranger to confirmation politics. In 1997, President Bill Clinton nominated the federal district judge to a vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. The Judiciary Committee held her nomination hearing in September 1997 but took six months to approve her on a 16 to 2 vote, in March 1998. She was finally confirmed on Oct. 2, 1998, after facing extensive questioning about her position on federal sentencing guidelines.
The effort to confirm Sotomayor will be led inside the White House by Cynthia Hogan, the chief counsel to Vice President Biden. White House officials described her as a veteran of the process and said Biden, a former Judiciary Committee chairman, and his chief of staff, Ron Klain, will also play key roles.
Republican aides have already noted the warm response to Sotomayor's nomination from a key group of centrist Democrats and Republicans who could make or break their chances at waging a filibuster. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) noted that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel called her before the announcement to inform her about the pick. And White House aides highlighted a conciliatory statement from Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
"Judge Sotomayor has a compelling life story and a long record of judicial service that will require careful consideration for this most important appointment," Collins said. "I look forward to a timely confirmation process that is fair, thorough, and conducted with civility."
More on: Sonia Sotomayor