By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Sonia Sotomayor may or may not be confirmed as the next Supreme Court justice, but she's definitely in the ballpark.
"Born in the South Bronx, she was raised in a housing project not far from Yankee Stadium, making her a lifelong Yankees fan," President Obama said yesterday in announcing his nominee to the high court. "I hope this will not disqualify her in the eyes of the New Englanders in the Senate."
Over Obama's left shoulder, the nominee grinned. Over his right shoulder, Vice President Biden shrugged, perhaps thinking about Red Sox fan Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
But this was only part of Obama's, er, pitch.
"During her tenure on the district court, she presided over roughly 450 cases," the president said. "One case in particular involved a matter of enormous concern to many Americans, including me: the baseball strike of 1994 and '95."
The guests in the East Room laughed. "In a decision that reportedly took her just 15 minutes to announce -- a swiftness much appreciated by baseball fans everywhere" -- (more audience laughter) "she issued an injunction that helped end the strike. Some say that Judge Sotomayor saved baseball."
It was an unusual way to introduce the woman who would succeed Justice David Souter, but Sotomayor's nomination is itself a bit of a curveball.
Some thought Obama would nominate Judge Diane Wood or Solicitor General Elena Kagan -- big brains who could serve as a counterweight to the court's conservative philosophers. Others expected a well-known politician such as Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
In selecting Sotomayor, Obama opted for biography over brain. As a legal mind, Sotomayor is described in portraits as competent, but no Louis Brandeis. Nor is Sotomayor, often described as an abrasive jurist, likely to be the next Earl Warren. But her bio is quite a hit. In Spanish, her surname can be translated as "big thicket" -- and that's just where Republicans could find themselves if they oppose this up-from-poverty Latina.
Obama gave the play-by-play:
First base: "Sonia's parents came to New York from Puerto Rico during Second World War," he said. Nominee, president and audience applauded the judge's mother, seated in the first row.
Second base: "Sonia's father was a factory worker with a third-grade education who didn't speak English," the president went on. ". . . When Sonia was 9, her father passed away."
Third base: "Sonia earned scholarships to Princeton, where she graduated at the top of her class, and Yale Law School, where she was an editor of the Yale Law Journal."
And, finally, crossing the plate: "It's my understanding that Judge Sotomayor's interest in the law was sparked as a young girl by reading the Nancy Drew series, and that when she was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 8, she was informed that people with diabetes can't grow up to be police officers or private investigators like Nancy Drew," Obama went on. "Well, Sonia, what you've shown in your life is that it doesn't matter where you come from, what you look like or what challenges life throws your way. No dream is beyond reach in the United States of America."
Obama was so excited about the announcement that he skipped right past the Framers of the Constitution to ancient Rome. Justices, he said, "are charged with the vital task of applying principles put to paper more than 20 centuries ago to some of the most difficult questions of our time." (Technically, that would have been papyrus back then, unless Obama misread his teleprompter and meant to say "more than two centuries ago").
The fans in the White House were rowdy before the announcement. Ricki Seidman, who is advising the White House on the nomination, was circulating among the guests when she tripped over the podium and crashed noisily to the ground in front of the television cameras. After a few tense moments, she rose, embarrassed but uninjured.
When the nominee had her turn at the microphone, the invitees -- among them Al Sharpton, labor boss John Sweeney, Kagan, Attorney General Eric Holder, liberal activist Nan Aron and a woman wearing a shawl that said "National Congress of American Indians" -- stood to applaud. For many of those in the crowd who spent the past eight years in the field defending against Bush's nominees, it was time to get in their licks. They greeted the president and his nominee with ballpark-style cheers, thumbs up and chants of "woo-hoo." They took photos with pocket cameras and iPhones. "Well, I'm excited, too," Obama told them.
Off to the side, Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod and other staffers watched like proud parents. Their grins were particularly wide when Obama announced that "it's a measure of her qualities and her qualifications that Judge Sotomayor was nominated to the U.S. District Court by a Republican president, George H.W. Bush." Actually, it was part of a deal in which Democrats also confirmed a conservative nominee -- but yesterday's rollout was not the time for such details. It was time for Sotomayor's story.
As Alberto Gonzales knows, an up-by-the-bootstraps story won't necessarily help you in the late innings, but, all the same, Sotomayor took a good cut at it yesterday. "I was raised in a Bronx public housing project but studied at two of the nation's finest universities," she said, echoing Obama almost word for word as she accepted the nomination. Visiting the White House, she said, "was an overwhelming experience for a kid from the South Bronx."
Well hit, Your Honor.