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A Compelling Biography Is No Guarantee of a Smooth Confirmation

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 30, 2009

For his first Supreme Court pick, the president chose a pioneering minority in the hope that a compelling story of overcoming poverty to graduate from Yale Law School and become a federal appeals court judge would preempt a bitter ideological fight.

The president was George H.W. Bush and the nominee was Clarence Thomas, and if there is a lesson for President Obama in naming Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, it is that compelling personal stories go only so far in guaranteeing a smooth confirmation process.

Sotomayor's factory-worker father died when she was 9, leaving her mother, a nurse, to raise Sotomayor and her brother in public housing. Sotomayor's mother scrimped to pay her children's Catholic school tuition. Inspired by Nancy Drew novels and the "Perry Mason" television series, Sotomayor went on to Princeton and Yale and into a legal career that has now reached the threshold of the Supreme Court.

It is an up-by-the-bootstraps story that aides said factored into Obama's decision. "As impressive and meaningful as Judge Sotomayor's sterling credentials in the law is her own extraordinary journey. Born in the South Bronx, she was raised in a housing project not far from Yankee Stadium," Obama said in announcing her appointment.

With their attention now turned to winning Sotomayor's confirmation, White House officials are highlighting her story in e-mails to supporters and communication with reporters. Following that lead, advocacy groups are featuring elements of her biography in television ads, while local organizers are using it to stoke ethnic pride and build grass-roots support for confirmation of the nation's first Latina justice.

But Sotomayor has come under intense criticism from some conservatives for saying a "wise Latina" judge would often make better decisions than a white male. Conservative critics have cited the statement as evidence that her jurisprudence is unduly influenced by her ethnicity, and Obama said yesterday that he is "sure she would have restated it."

The effort to emphasize the Horatio Alger aspects of Sotomayor's story alongside her substantial legal credentials is reminiscent of the strategy deployed for Thomas for the Supreme Court 18 years ago. And although Sotomayor has much deeper judicial experience than Thomas did then -- besides 17 years on the federal bench, she has worked as a prosecutor and a corporate attorney -- the goal of the strategy is the same: to defuse the confirmation process with a story that everyday people can connect with.

"The personal stories are absolutely compelling to the American people," said Kenneth M. Duberstein, a former White House chief of staff who guided the high court nominations of David H. Souter and Thomas. "Since Supreme Court nominations take on all of the attributes of a political campaign, you are selling somebody's life story. You are getting the American people to weigh in, to empathize, to put themselves in someone's shoes."

In the case of Thomas, White House advisers decided that the road to confirmation ran through Pin Point, Ga., the impoverished hamlet where Thomas was born. "He grew up without indoor plumbing, on what people said was the wrong side of the tracks," Duberstein said of Thomas.

That was the dominant narrative attached to Thomas early in the confirmation process, even if it was not exactly complete. Indeed, Thomas lived in Pin Point for the first six years of his life. But after the wooden shack his family lived in burned down, Thomas was taken in by his grandfather, a self-made businessman, who raised him in relative comfort in nearby Savannah.

At one point, Duberstein said, an internal White House head count had 77 senators in favor of Thomas's confirmation, despite questions about his legal experience and conservative legal philosophy. "That was Pin Point, Georgia," he said. "The fact that he came from humble roots to be nominated to the Supreme Court by the president of the United States is what it was all about."

Deflation of Support

Thomas's support in the Senate nearly collapsed when a former subordinate's allegations of sexual harassment surfaced late in the confirmation process, prompting a second round of hearings. But Thomas was eventually confirmed 52 to 48, the closest vote for a Supreme Court justice in more than a century.

The Obama White House and its supporters are lifting up Sotomayor's story alongside her legal credentials as they push for her confirmation, which many analysts think, barring unforeseen disclosures, is highly likely, given her credentials and the Democratic dominance in the Senate. After her nomination, the White House circulated a smoothly written, five-page biography to reporters describing Sotomayor as both "one of the ablest federal judges currently sitting" and a role model for "her ascent to the federal bench from a South Bronx housing project."

Americans United for Change, a group funded largely by organized labor, released a Spanish-language spot that describes Sotomayor as a judge appointed by presidents of both parties and the "daughter of Puerto Rican parents" whose "father died when she was 9." Similarly, the Coalition for Constitutional Values, made up of liberal advocacy groups, has launched an ad that notes that Sotomayor was "raised in public housing by a working mom."

During recent commencement ceremonies at Lehman College in the Bronx, Sotomayor's story was put front and center for the 2,400 graduates, the lion's share Hispanic. "It is not like the White House is orchestrating this," Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) told the graduates. "But it is happening on its own, anyway. Every speaker, including yours truly, spoke about Sonia Sotomayor. The president, the dean, the valedictorian, the Bronx borough president, myself. Her story is inspiring."

The GOP Dilemma

Serrano predicted that Sotomayor's biography would complicate Republican efforts to oppose her confirmation. "The White House has made sure that everybody understands that her résumé is not just the professional résumé but also her story," he said. "I've been hearing Republicans preach that story for years. Pick yourself up by your own bootstraps, without government help, blah, blah, blah. Well, Judge Sotomayor defeated her environment. What are they going to do with that?"

It is a dilemma acknowledged by Republican senators.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, called Sotomayor's story "marvelous" and one "that makes you proud for her and for her family." Given that, he said, Republicans would focus mostly on Sotomayor's legal experience while being respectful toward her background.

Still, Sessions noted, in 2002 and 2003 Democrats blocked the nomination of Miguel Estrada to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, despite Estrada's being the son of Honduran immigrants who grew up poor in New York City.

"It didn't appear to affect the Democrats," said Sessions, who supported Estrada. "It didn't change any Democratic minds."

Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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