Even before the inauguration, President Obama had put together a list of potential nominees for the Supreme Court. He and his staff thought they would have months in office before they would have to focus on it.
They got a rude awakening in February when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was operated on for pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest forms of the disease. That jolt would serve them well, even after Ginsburg's surgery revealed she had an excellent chance of survival. Less than two months later, Justice David Souter let the White House know he planned to retire at the end of the court's term.
Initially, some 40 names were on the White House list of potential appointees. By last week, that list had been narrowed to four. Federal appeals court Judge Diane Wood of Chicago and new Solicitor General Elena Kagan were interviewed by the president on Tuesday. And on Thursday, he spent an hour with Sonia Sotomayor and an equal amount of time with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
Nobody knows for sure what was discussed in these meetings because no staff members were there. But White House aides say the president had read many of the judges' written opinions and legal work written by the other two candidates.
Sotomayor was the only candidate the president didn't know personally. She was also the only candidate who was being staked out by the press in media-crazed New York. So, on Thursday morning, Sotomayor, carrying her customary brown-bag lunch, strolled past the cameras parked in front of her Manhattan condo, turned the corner as usual, headed for her nearby office, and stepped into a car driven by her best friend's husband. From there, they drove to Washington, arriving at about 1 p.m. at the White house, where they were whisked inside with little fanfare and no public notice.
Sotomayor spent nearly seven hours at the White House that day, meeting first with Vice President Biden's counsel Cynthia Hogan, with the president's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, with vetting lawyers and with political strategist David Axelrod.
"Part of my interest was how would she present herself to the American people, how would she look in testifying to the Senate," Axelrod says.
Axelrod was impressed, as were others. Finally, Sotomayor met with the president for about an hour.
Obama very likely was interested in Sotomayor's personal story, since he didn't know her, but in view of his 12 years teaching constitutional law, one can imagine that he also asked her questions about her approach to consitutional and statutory interpretation. Nobody knows for sure because Obama and Sotomayor were the only two people in the room.
The next day, Friday, Obama told aides that he had made a tentative choice but he wanted to sleep on it over the weekend; and he went to Camp David.
Back in Washington, Biden placed a call to Sotomayor, and the two talked for more than an hour. After that, Sotomayor told her mother and brother that they should be on standby for a trip to Washington in case she was chosen. Her brother promptly went out and bought suits for his teenage twin boys.
On Monday, White House aides were still working on rollouts for all four potential nominees. In the case of Sotomayor, final consultations were taking place with medical experts about her diabetes. At 8 p.m., Obama told his staff of his choice and called Sotomayor to offer her the position. He also placed calls to the other three finalists.
In New York, Sotomayor, still at her office, began drafting her remarks for the next morning, e-mailed them to the White House for tweaking, went home to pack and did a repeat of her earlier head fake for the press, being driven to Washington by her friend's husband in the family car. They arrived at 2:15 a.m. and checked into one of the city's big convention-catering hotels.
At 7:30 a.m., the unmarked private car went back to the White House for the big event.
All went incredibly smoothly except for one thing: White House aides scrambled the pages of Sotomayor's remarks in the book they placed on the lectern for her at the announcement ceremony.
Fortunately, she had memorized her speech.