How Obama's Nomination Of Sotomayor Unfolded This week's Supreme Court nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor capped months of work at the White House, and years of thinking by President Obama. He devoted a chapter of his book, The Audacity of Hope, to the question of judicial nominations and confirmations. Obama had to whittle the list of four finalists down to one.
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How Obama's Nomination Of Sotomayor Unfolded

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How Obama's Nomination Of Sotomayor Unfolded

How Obama's Nomination Of Sotomayor Unfolded

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DAVID GREENE, host:

President Obama is already working to make sure his Supreme Court nomination makes it through the conformation process. The selection of Judge Sonia Sotomayor this week capped months of work at the White House and years of thinking by Mr. Obama. Indeed, he devoted a chapter of his book "The Audacity of Hope" to the question of judicial nominations and conformations.

NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has pieced together this account of how the process for picking a Supreme Court nominee unfolded.

NINA TOTENBERG: Even before the inauguration, President Obama had himself put together a list of potential nominees for the Supreme Court. But 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, for less than two months later, Justice David Souter let the White House know he planned to retire at the end of the court term.

Initially there were some 40 names 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 Judge 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, since no staff 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, and she was also the only candidate who was being staked out by the press in media-crazed New York.

So on Thursday morning, Judge 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 the White House at about 1:00, where they were whisked inside with little fanfare and no public notice.

Judge 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.

Mr. DAVID AXELROD (White House Strategist): Part of my interest was how would she present herself to the American people, how would she look in testifying to the Senate.

TOTENBERG: Axelrod was impressed, as were others. Finally, Sotomayor met with the president for about an hour. Mr. 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 Constitutional and statutory interpretations.

Nobody knows for sure, since Mr. Obama and Judge Sotomayor were the only two people in the room. The next day, Friday, Mr. Obama told aides that he'd made a tentative choice, but he wanted to sleep on it over the weekend, and off he went to Camp David.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, Vice President Biden placed a call to Sotomayor and the two talked for over 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 roll-outs for all four potential nominees. In the case of Sotomayor, final consultations were taking place with medical experts about her diabetes.

At 8:00 p.m., Mr. 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, Judge Sotomayor, still at her office, began drafting her remarks for the next morning, emailed 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 here at 2:15 in the morning and checked into one of the city's big convention-catering hotels. At 7:30 in the morning, 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'd memorized her speech.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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