(Soundbite of applause)
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
That's President Obama's nominee to the United States Supreme Court, Appellate Judge Sonia Sotomayor. President Obama stood beside her and has now joined the applause as she finishes. Vice President Joe Biden also on the red carpet behind the lectern there at the White House, where a crowd has been applauding her today.
The president said that he wanted a judge who would apply a rigorous intellect and as well as interpret, not make, law. But went on to quote Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, talking about how the life of law has not been logic, it has been experience. And he went on to talk primarily about Judge Sotomayor's personal life - her past, her family life. And Judge Sotomayor did more of the same.
And let's analyze this now, beginning with NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, who has seen many nominees come and go. Nina, good morning.
NINA TOTENBERG: Good morning.
INSKEEP: What did you think of what you just heard?
TOTENBERG: Well, it was - you know, it was a good performance and we've not seen any bad performances generally when you trot out a nominee. But this is a nominee who really does have an enormous wealth of experience. She's been a litigator, she has been a prosecutor, she's been a trial judge, she's been on the Court of Appeals for more than a decade. And it was kind of interesting to watch - and she has this incredible personal story.
TOTENBERG: And it was interesting to watch her. There were - I have to say, no airs. And she was not dressed fancy at all. She could have passed - she was wearing a plain black suit with a yellow top. If you'd walk into an office, you could have thought that she was the judge or the secretary. And - but she was eloquent about where she's been and where she's come to. Where she is going right now is going to be probably a somewhat tough confirmation process.
But her story, that personal story, the fact that she would be the first Hispanic on the court, I think is going to make it very tough for Republicans to oppose her, even though conservative groups have ginned up opposition to whomever the president was going to nominate. All the names we've seen on the list, those of us who cover this get constant emails about what's wrong with them, how they're extremists, activists.
INSKEEP: Even before they're nominated.
TOTENBERG: Even before they're nominated. But let's take, for example, Senator Kyl, the number two person on the Republican side, who is the only Republican so far to have openly floated the idea of a filibuster.
INSKEEP: Jon Kyl of Arizona.
TOTENBERG: Jon Kyl of Arizona. And he comes from a state with a lot of Hispanic voters. I just can't imagine him opposing this nominee.
INSKEEP: And I suppose that would be one of two reasons that if you are the president and his communications team and this nominee, you emphasize at this moment the personal story. Part of it is that it's very powerful and part of it is you certainly don't want to be talking about legal niceties up there at this moment.
TOTENBERG: No, you don't. Now, she's got a huge legal record, but I've been reading summaries. I can't tell you I've read all of the opinions. I've been reading summaries of a lot of the opinions, and they are not extraordinary. They are not lightning-rod opinions. The most controversial opinion that I know of that she participated in was the New Haven firefighters case in which she was part of a three-person panel. She didn't write the opinion.
INSKEEP: This was about affirmative action?
TOTENBERG: This was about a test given in New Haven in which white firefighters did better and won promotions. And the city then wanted to withdraw the test and have a redo because they said it was an inherently - that was a test with an inherent bias. And the white firefighters said it was a perfectly good professional test fair and square, and this is reverse discrimination.
INSKEEP: Nina Totenberg, stay with us because I want another - bring another voice into the conversation.
NPR's David Welna covers Congress and he's been watching today's announcement. And David, we just heard a moment ago Nina say that people have been gearing up to oppose this nominee whoever he or she might have been. How tough is the fight expected to be now that the name is out?
DAVID WELNA: Well, I think we can have a certain amount of pushback expected from Republicans in Congress, Republicans on the committee included. In fact, the top three Republicans on this committee, Senator Kyl, whom Nina mentioned, Jeff Sessions, who's the ranking member, and Chuck Grassley, all voted against Sonia Sotomayor in 1998 when President Clinton nominated her for the appeals court, so there's a record there. Orrin Hatch, who is also on the committee, voted for that nomination.
But I think that we can expect a pushback. And as Nina said, this is a tricky situation for Republicans because after all, she is the first Latina nominated to the Supreme Court. Republicans did very poorly with Hispanics in the country in November. And in some ways I think that the nomination really shores up President Obama's credibility with Latinos in the United States and it sort of seals the deal. And they will be hard put to go after her on her social affinities, I think.
I think it'll be more a question of going after decisions that she has made and picking them apart. They do not want to do this before September. That's another fight that we're going to see coming up here.
INSKEEP: We are listening to NPR's David Welna on this day of the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor.
DAVID GREENE, host:
And David, on the timing of this, can we just ask you very briefly, does Mr. Obama want Senate confirmation before the August recess? Is that likely? Is it possible?
WELNA: Well, I think that we could possibly have confirmation hearings before the August recess. I'm not sure. But as I said, Republicans would much rather have this be considered in September. That would still give this nominee time to get onto the court by the time the session begins in October. What Democrats don't want is this nomination sort of hanging out there for five or six weeks subject to all kinds of scrutiny and second-guessing. They want to hurry up this process. I think that's one reason why we got the announcement from President Obama today.
He also chose to announce at a time when members of Congress are all scattered to the winds because Congress is not in session this week. I don't think that's a coincidence. I think it's...
GREENE: David, very briefly, I just want to bring in our colleague, NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. And Scott, we have just a little bit of time here. Can you tell us what the scene was like at the White House? It looked like Judge Sotomayor was sort of breaking up a little bit. We just have a few seconds here.
SCOTT HORSLEY: Well, it was an emotional scene. I saw a few tears in the audience as well. The judge's mother came into the East Room here at the White House a few minutes before the judge herself and the president. And she got a standing ovation. And obviously it's (unintelligible) part of the White House sales job to present Sotomayor not only (unintelligible) a brilliant scholar and someone (unintelligible) legal experience but also someone with a very warm human story to tell.
GREENE: It sounds like you're in a very busy place. And we actually have more time than we thought. White House correspondent Scott Horsley, what did you pick out of the president's speech that you feel is important and might be a preview of how the White House is going to manage this confirmation battle?
HORSLEY: Well, they're highlighting both Judge Sotomayor's level of experience. She's been on the federal bench for 17 years, first named by a Republican, the first President Bush and then promoted to the appeals court by a Democrat, President Clinton, so someone with bipartisan experience, also experience as a prosecutor and in corporate law. As you heard the president say, more experience than any sitting member of the Supreme Court had when he or she came on the bench.
So on the one hand, they're saying she's got a tremendous amount of experience. Of course, graduated at the top of her class at Princeton and Yale Law School, those kinds of credentials. But equally important, and this is something the president has said from the day he walked into the press room to announce Justice Souter's impending retirement, was that he was going to be looking for someone who understood the law not as a series of footnotes in a legal text but as something with - as something with real consequences for people's lives.
And so that was something that he stressed today in talking about Judge Sotomayor, someone who as far as she has come has never forgotten where she came from, has never forgotten the crime victims she represented as a prosecutor, has never forgotten the neighbors that she grew up with in the Bronx, and as someone who would understand the consequences of legal decisions for those people. And that was a message the judge herself echoed as well.
GREENE: Well, let's just pause on that for one second, because when you talk about footnotes, I mean, Republicans say that the law is not just footnotes. It is the fundamental important thing to understand for a potential nominee. And the president said that, you know, beyond traditional qualifications he wants something more. And I think that something more is what you were talking about, this life experience.
What is the White House doing to get ready for battle to be able to go up against Republicans and say that empathy, as President Obama has said, and these other qualifications, life experience, are of enormous value?
HORSLEY: Well, again, they're going to be pointing out that she's been confirmed twice, that she was first nominated by a Republican. And although her confirmation when she was named to the appellate bench was far from unanimous, there was bipartisan support. There were Republicans who voted in favor of her confirmation. So they're going to be championing her as a - as someone who has a track record and one that's won by bipartisan support in the past.
I was interested too in a case that the AP was drawing attention to today where the judge was in the dissent on a case of the victims of the TWA crash off the shores in the Atlantic. The question was how far offshore they where and the decision was that they were close enough to justify a larger settlement for the family members. And in her dissent Judge Sotomayor argued that, no, although that was an understandable thing to be trying to give those family members a larger settlement, the law was very clear and that the crash had taken place outside those waters. So this was case where, you know, she really was arguing for the letter of the law over some sort of empathetic or more generous settlement for the victims.
INSKEEP: NPR's Scott Horsley is at the White House, where President Obama has just introduced his Supreme Court nominee.
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