Senate Will Have To Confirm Court Choice

President Obama's first nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court is Sonia Sotomayor. She's a federal appeals court judge. And if confirmed, she'll be the third woman to serve on the high court and the first Hispanic. Lawmakers in the Senate will have to vote on her confirmation. Some have said her nomination is bullet proof.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And if you missed the announcement a few moments ago, her name is Judge Sonia Sotomayor. And there was much talk, as we heard, in that announcement of her personal story. In fact, Judge Sotomayor, the nominee, when she got a chance to speak, she introduced her brother, her sister-in-law, her niece, her nephews, her mother. Her father, of course, died when she was nine years old. There was much emphasis on the personal story.

But now this becomes a political story. NPR's David Welna, who covers the Congress, is still with us. And David, do you have any early reaction from the Republicans who, if anybody would oppose this nomination in great numbers, would be them?

WELNA: I do, Steve. Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, who is a member of the Judiciary Committee, has put a statement on Judge Sotomayor's nomination. And he says that, you know, Congress has to work its will and do its fair review of this nomination. But he also makes it clear that he is not going to be won over easily. He says it is my hope that the process will allow her to prove herself to possess the impartiality, integrity, legal expertise and judicial temperament that we have come to expect from those that sit on our highest court.

And he points out that this would be a lifetime appointment. He adds: she must prove her commitment to impartially deciding cases based on the law rather than based on her own personal politics, feelings and preferences. I'm sure this is going to be something we're going to be hearing again and again over the coming weeks.

INSKEEP: And in just a few seconds, let's remember the mechanics here. This goes to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Assuming they approve it, it goes to the full Senate. And while there will be some Republicans who are skeptical, including the one you just heard, the question is whether Republicans are skeptical enough to mount a filibuster and if they have the power to sustain it.

WELNA: The question would be whether they could keep Democrats from getting 60 votes to block any attempt at a filibuster. And right now that seems to be a very tough thing for Republicans to do, given the numbers.

INSKEEP: Okay. David, thanks very much.

WELNA: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's congressional correspondent David Welna.

DAVID GREENE, host:

We're now joined by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, who's the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and will be running the confirmation hearings for Judge Sotomayor. Senator, thanks for being with us.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: And as I understand it, you're in Kabul, Afghanistan right now. Tell us what you're doing there and how you got word of the nomination today.

Senator LEAHY: Well, I was visiting our troops here. President Obama called me to notify me that he was going to be making the announcement in a few hours at that time and talk to about it. I think I think he's making a very good choice.

She has a distinguished background. She certainly has a wonderful life story, born to a Puerto Rican family, growing up in public housing projects and everything she did to work her way through law school. And she actually would be coming to the Supreme Court with more judicial experience than any justice for the last hundred years.

INSKEEP: Well, tell me how much conversation there was between you and the White House leading up to this announcement. Were you expecting this name? Did you get a chance to offer some advice and feedback or was this a pretty close process?

Sen. LEAHY: We've had I have talked to the president about a number of names. He first called me the day the news came out about David Souter leaving in fact reached me in my car. I was on my way to Vermont. We talked about a number of aspects then. I urged him to talk to both the Republican and Democratic leadership. And to his credit, he sat down with all of us and we went over some of the qualifications. I gave him a list of different names I had. I told him that I would hope that it would be somebody with some real life experience, not just in the judicial monastery. I certainly felt that with nine justices, having only one woman on the Supreme Court did not reflect America, and he seemed to agree.

I was not surprised at the choice. This is a woman who has been nominated by both President George H.W. Bush and President Clinton for a judgeship.

INSKEEP: Well, Senator, can I just ask you about the real life experience you talked about? The president has said that he was looking for someone who has empathy, who has sort of real life experience. And those are terms that some Republican colleague of yours haven't reacted well to so far. What's going to be your message to them to deal with (unintelligible)?

Sen. LEAHY: We have some, unfortunately, in the other party who are going to oppose anybody the president comes up with. And we've already got some of the special interest groups on the far right who are sending out fundraising letters.

INSKEEP: But they've made a very specific argument here, saying that dealing with, you know, a justice, those sorts of things empathy shouldn't be considerations.

Sen. LEAHY: Empathy is in the eye of the beholder. Somebody's had some real life experience, here's a - here's a person who was a very tough and effective prosecutor. And as a former prosecutor, I like that. I like that (unintelligible) I like that. She was co-counsel in the so-called Tarzan murder case. She's been a corporate litigator. She's been a prosecutor. These are real life these are real life experiences. Too often we have people think of life in total abstract. I think a prosecutor especially gets to see life in the good parts and also in the very tough parts.

INSKEEP: Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he's joining us very generously on the line from Kabul, Afghanistan. Senator, thank you so much.

Sen. LEAHY: Thank you.

Let's just recap the news from this morning. President Obama, at the White House, announced his nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court. She would become the first Hispanic to serve on the high court if she is confirmed.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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Obama Chooses Sotomayor For Supreme Court

Sonia Sotomayor

Age: 54; Born June 25, 1954, in New York, N.Y.

  

Experience: Nominated by President Clinton in 1997 as U.S. Court of Appeals judge for the 2nd Circuit, 1998-present; U.S. District Court judge for the Southern District of New York, 1992-98; private practice, New York City, 1984-92; assistant district attorney, Manhattan, 1979-84

  

Education: B.A., Princeton University, 1976; J.D., Yale Law School, 1979.

  

Quote (from 1997 nomination hearing): "I don't believe we should bend the Constitution under any circumstance. It says what it says. We should do honor to it."

'Where Policy Is Made'

Critics point to this comment by Judge Sonia Sotomayor at a 2005 forum at Duke University School of Law, where she talked about why public interest groups like to hire lawyers who have been appeals court clerks:

President Obama on Tuesday nominated U.S. Circuit Judge Sonia Sotomayor to serve on the Supreme Court, tapping the daughter of Puerto Rican parents to succeed retiring Justice David Souter and become the first Hispanic to serve on the high court.

Calling Sotomayor "an inspiring woman," Obama said that he looked not only at intellect and the ability to be impartial, but at life experience and the ability to relate to ordinary Americans in choosing Sotomayor as his nominee.

At a White House news conference, Sotomayor thanked the president for "the most humbling honor" of her life. "My heart today is bursting with gratitude," she said.

If confirmed by the Senate, the 54-year-old judge will bring nearly 17 years of experience on the federal bench and a history of bipartisan appeal to the high court. She was first appointed to federal bench in the Southern District of New York in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush and was named to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals by President Bill Clinton in 1998.

Hispanic Groups Laud Choice

Obama said Sotomayor has more experience as a judge than any of the justices had when they were nominated for their positions on the high court.

Hispanic groups lauded the president's choice. "The Supreme Court should reflect the diverse population of the United States to ensure that our nation's highest court understands the unique circumstances of all Americans," said Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

If confirmed, Sotomayor will join Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the second woman on the current court and the third in history. Sotomayor, like the retiring Souter, is expected to vote with the court liberals.

Republicans are not expected to put up much of a fight against the nomination. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine said Republicans would have a difficult time taking on a judge that was first appointed to the federal bench by Republican.

"She's been pretty carefully vetted and analyzed already, so I would find it unusual if they were to decide to try to take her on," Kane said.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said the upcoming court vacancy provides an opportunity to discuss the role the Supreme Court has in the daily lives of Americans.

"Republicans look forward to learning more about federal appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor's thoughts on the importance of the Supreme Court's fidelity to the Constitution and the rule of law," Steele was quoted saying on the RNC Web site.

Republicans Want Time For Debate

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said his colleagues will treat Sotomayor fairly but want time to debate her qualifications.

"We will thoroughly examine her record to ensure she understands that the role of a jurist in our democracy is to apply the law even-handedly, despite their own feelings or personal or political preferences," McConnell said in a statement posted on his Web site.

Sotomayor predicted senators would come to see her as an ordinary person who has had some extraordinary opportunities.

"I hope that as the Senate and American people learn more about me, they will see that I am an ordinary person who has been blessed with extraordinary opportunities and experiences," Sotomayor said.

During the East Room announcement, the president cited Sotomayor's educational accomplishments at Princeton University — where she graduated summa cum laude in 1976 — and Yale University Law School. He also said her stint trying criminal cases as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan after her graduation from Yale Law School, corporate law experience and time as a trial judge gave her an edge because she has seen the judicial system from many perspectives.

One of her most prominent rulings came in 1995, when she sided with Major League Baseball players in a labor strike that had led to the cancellation of that season's World Series.

"Over a distinguished career that spans three decades, Judge Sotomayor has worked at almost every level of our judicial system, providing her with a depth of experience and a breadth of perspective that will be invaluable as a Supreme Court justice," Obama said.

The president also said he was moved by her inspirational personal story.

Sotomayor was raised in a housing project in New York's South Bronx by Puerto Rican parents who came to the United States during World War II. Her father was a factory worker who had a third-grade education and spoke no English. He died when she was 9, a year after she was diagnosed with Type 1, or juvenile, diabetes.

Sotomayor said she was strongly influenced by her mother, who served in the Women's Army Corps and often worked two jobs to support Sotomayor and her brother, Juan.

"I have often said that I am all I am because of her, and I am only half the woman she is," Sotomayor said, recognizing her mother and other family members seated in the audience as the president announced her nomination.

An Upward Career Path

Obama said the couple believed in the American dream and the power of education. Sotomayor attended Catholic school and went on to attend Princeton and Yale.

From 1984 until her appointment to the bench, Sotomayor practiced international business law at the New York-based firm of Pavia & Harcourt LLP. There, she focused on intellectual property issues and litigation and arbitration of commercial and commodity export trading cases, according to her appeals court biography.

Later, Sotomayor became a member of the 2nd Circuit Task Force on Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts, which was established in 1993 to examine the effect of bias on court employees and litigants. She has also remained active in legal education, serving as an adjunct professor at New York University School of Law from 1998-2007 and as a lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School since 1999.

She has also served on the Board of Directors of the State of New York Mortgage Agency, the New York City Campaign Finance Board, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Maternity Center Association.

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