The White House contacted Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor about serving on the high court four days before Justice David Souter announced that he would retire, the judge disclosed Thursday, as she sent a Senate panel a massive portfolio of personal details and writings that will shape the debate on her confirmation.
The five boxes of files delivered to Congress gave senators a fuller picture of Sotomayor's background and record, as well as of how President Barack Obama came to nominate his first Supreme Court choice. They came in response to a questionnaire the Senate Judiciary Committee sends federal court nominees.
Sotomayor, who would replace Souter on the court if confirmed, first got a call from White House Counsel Gregory Craig on April 27, then had near-daily contact with his office after Souter announced his retirement May 1.
Sotomayor told the committee that no one ever asked her position during the selection process about any issue that could come before the Supreme Court.
There is little doubt that Sotomayor will be confirmed by the Democrat-controlled Senate and become the third woman named to the high court. But Republicans are balking at Democratic efforts to ensure a speedy set of hearings and summertime vote for the appeals court judge, whose 17 years on the bench they say warrants a longer debate.
Sotomayor returned to Capitol Hill on Thursday for a third day of one-on-one visits with senators. By week's end, she will have met with more than one-quarter of the Senate, and all but a few members of the Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat and the Judiciary Committee chairman, wants hearings to begin next month, with the goal of holding a confirmation vote before Congress leaves in early August for a monthlong vacation.
He is negotiating with the top Republican on the committee, Sen. Jeff Sessions, who says he would rather go slower in delving into Sotomayor's voluminous record, with hearings set for September.
'Quickly as we can'
Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, said Thursday he would not impose an "arbitrary deadline" on Sotomayor's confirmation, but added, "We're going to do this as quickly as we can."
Reid, sporting a button on his lapel that said "Sonia" at a news conference with Hispanic leaders to promote Sotomayor, declined to say whether he thought the Republicans were trying to slow the process.
The White House sought to build momentum for a swift confirmation process, calling attention to the fact that it took Sotomayor just nine days to respond to the questionnaire — shorter than other recent Supreme Court nominees.
"This historically fast completion of the exhaustive questions is no small feat that will hopefully lead to her swift consideration by the Senate," Craig said in a blog posting on the White House Web site.
If confirmed, Sotomayor, 54, would be the first Hispanic and the third woman to serve on the court.
The documents also described Sotomayor's finances, which paint a portrait of a New Yorker in an expensive neighborhood who may be living largely paycheck to paycheck. She has $1.16 million in assets, but $418,350 in debts, including her mortgage, credit card bills and a big dentist bill. Previous financial disclosure reports showed her with an annual income of about $200,000.
The White House is keeping up a steady drumbeat in support of Sotomayor, but she has been under fire for a 2001 speech in which she said she hoped the rulings of a "wise Latina" would be better than those of a white male without similar experiences.
Democrats tried to defuse the criticism by circulating a 1994 speech in which Sotomayor spoke about how personal characteristics could affect judging, which Republicans never criticized during the 1997 debate on her confirmation to a federal appeals court — proof, the Democrats said, that conservatives are trying to politicize Sotomayor's nomination.
In 1994, Sotomayor said, "I would hope that a wise woman with the richness of her experiences would, more often than not, reach a better conclusion" than a wise man. "What is better?" she said. "I ... hope that better will mean a more compassionate, caring conclusion."
Republicans said that the 1994 speech only proves that Sotomayor actually believes the controversial sentiment she restated seven years later and that Obama and the White House were being disingenuous when they suggested she made a poor choice of words in 2001.
Wendy Long of the conservative Judicial Confirmation Network said the remark is evidently part of Sotomayor's "stump speech," and a "well-considered theme" in her legal thinking.
"The White House must now acknowledge that this is a hardened view of Sotomayor's, rejecting impartiality and neutral judging, that it is now impossible to spin away," Long said in a statement.
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