Supreme Court Pick Didn't Come Lightly For Obama

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Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor will be courting senators next week who will ultimately vote on her confirmation. President Obama consulted with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee before choosing Sotomayor. Her selection provides a window into the president's legal philosophy, as well as his decision-making style.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

The Senate won't vote on confirming Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor for weeks. But the fur is already flying. Republican leaders are trying to calm down conservative critics like Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich both labeled her a racist this week.

President Obama lashed back today in his weekly radio and video address.

President BARACK OBAMA: She has more experience on the federal bench than any incoming Supreme Court justice in the past hundred years. Quite simply, Judge Sotomayor has a deep familiarity with our judicial system from almost every angle.

LYDEN: The president's choice illuminates his legal philosophy and his decision-making style, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

HORSLEY: President Obama was thinking about the Supreme Court long before Justice David Souter announced his retirement this spring. Barely a week after taking office, the president signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act, undoing a 2007 Supreme Court ruling.

At the time, Mr. Obama spoke about what he saw as the high court's error in throwing out a woman's lawsuit over unequal pay just because she'd missed a narrowly defined deadline.

President OBAMA: Justice isn't about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a case book. It's about how our laws affect the daily lives and the daily realities of people.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama used similar language earlier this month to describe what he was looking for in a Supreme Court nominee, a quality he summed up as empathy. Some conservatives have attacked that term as code for judicial activism. But Mr. Obama defended the idea during a fundraiser Wednesday in Los Angeles.

President OBAMA: It's amusing to me to see that word used as an empathy. But, you know, the idea of empathy is pretty simple, that you're standing in somebody else's shoes and you see through their eyes, that you make connections that you didn't know were there before.

HORSLEY: It's likely the president made some connections with Sotomayor whose improbable life story has obvious parallels with his own. Like Mr. Obama, Sotomayor climbed the Ivy League success ladder after a challenging childhood.

President OBAMA: Coming out of the South Bronx, raised by a mom who, a single mom, who worked as a nurse and put her and her brother through Catholic schools, bought the only encyclopedias in the entire neighborhood because she believed in education and the American dream.

HORSLEY: In addition to Sotomayor's biography and her legal experience, the president has touted her judicial restraint saying he was looking for a nominee who would interpret the law, not try to legislate from the bench. Some conservatives are skeptical of that.

But Berkeley professor Gordon Silverstein believes that Sotomayor, while liberal, is unlikely to blaze new trails in social policy.

Professor GORDON SILVERSTEIN (Political Science, U.C. Berkeley): When you look at her two decades in court service and if you look at both of her previous hearings during Senate confirmation, I don't think she suggests that this is somebody who's got a huge master plan and an aggressive new theory that's going to lead the court in major policy directions.

HORSLEY: And Silverstein argues that's a good thing. For years, he says Liberals have relied too heavily on the courts as an avenue for social change, instead, investing in the hard sometimes messy work of winning battles in the political arena.

Prof. SILVERSTEIN: Obama's a perfect example of this. I mean, here's a guy who went to law school because and that's how you save the world. But I think he realized that if you really want to save the world, you got to do it through the political process. And so he leaves legal practice and he runs for office and, well, you know the rest of the story.

HORSLEY: In his 2006 book "The Audacity of Hope," Mr. Obama seems to acknowledge the limits of change that can be achieved by judicial fiat. I wondered if in our reliance on the courts, he wrote, progressives had lost too much faith in democracy. However limited the president may see the courts role, Mr. Obama did not make his Supreme Court pick lightly. He sought advice from every member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Republicans as well as Democrats. And he read reams of background material about Sotomayor and other candidates.

Of the four finalists, Sotomayor was the only one Mr. Obama did not already know personally. Political Advisor, David Axelrod, told the PBS NewsHour they met for the first time in the Oval Office just five days before her nomination was announced.

Mr. DAVID AXELROD (Political Advisor): He met for a little over an hour, but he had a great deal of material about her. He had read many of her opinions, so he was very familiar with her record by the time that they met. And then they had a discussion that he described to me - a pretty dense discussion about very arcane points of the law.

HORSLEY: Sotomayor actually spent about seven hours inside the White House that day without being spotted by a single news reporter. The No Drama Obama team managed to keep a tight lid on the selection process, much as they did during the presidential campaign. News of Sotomayor's nomination didn't leak out until just a couple of hours before the formal East Room announcement.

Scott Horsley and NPR News, the White House.

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