By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 2, 2009 7:19 PM
In her first round of Capitol Hill courtesy calls, Sonia Sotomayor reassured skeptical Republicans today that she is not the activist that many conservatives fear, and that "ultimately and completely," a judge must follow the law.
But Sotomayor's avowal, offered first in a meeting with Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), did not sway GOP senators to embrace her nomination, much less expedite the confirmation process that President Obama would like to wrap up by early August.
"There is quite a record here . . . and I think it does need a careful examination," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, who met with Sotomayor after she left Leahy's office. The Alabama lawmaker noted that Justice David Souter's resignation does not take effect until Oct. 5. "Do we have enough time to do this right by October 5? The answer is yes," Sessions said. "And why rush, would be the question I have."
The 54-year-old judge is in line to become the first Latina and third woman to serve on the Supreme Court, and Democrats welcomed her nomination as a historic milestone.
"Everyone in America, I want them to understand that we have the whole package here," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters when Sotomayor arrived at his Capitol office, the first stop on her day-long itinerary. The nominee met with 10 senators today, and will return to the Senate tomorrow to meet with 10 more.
With the help of White House officials, Sotomayor continued to put the finishing touches on a detailed Senate questionnaire. The nominee, who has been a federal appeals court judge since 1998 and previously served on federal district court, has more than 3,000 cases in her dossier. Those decisions will be submitted to senators this week, along with a 10-page questionnaire that seeks records of Sotomayor's personal finances, legal work, professional associations, speeches, and legal and other writings.
As Sotomayor embarked on her meetings, Republican leaders signaled they would resist President Obama's push to confirm her by Aug. 7, the start of the Senate's summer recess. Sessions and Leahy are expected to meet Wednesday to begin formal discussions about the schedule, and Reid said the terms remain flexible.
"I don't want to set any arbitrary deadlines," Reid said. "I think what we should do is do it as quickly as we can. It's important that we make sure that everyone has an opportunity to ask questions that they have."
But senior Senate aides in both parties are skeptical that a deal to expedite Sotomayor's confirmation can be reached. With Democrats holding 59 Senate seats, one short of the 60 needed to break a filibuster, and moderates in both parties already sending favorable signals about Sotomayor, Republican opponents are unlikely to find enough votes to block her confirmation.
What GOP senators can do is slow down the process, a tactic that would allow more time for negative information to emerge. Democrats scoffed at Republican stalling tactics, circulating a quote from Sessions after Justice Samuel Alito was nominated to replace Sandra Day O'Conner in 2005. The Bush administration was pressing then-Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (Pa.), who has since changed his party affiliation to Democrat, to confirm Alito before Congress left for its winter break. Sessions was quoted telling reporters during that period, "My personal view is, let's finish it this year; let's not have it hanging out there. You don't have to read everything he's written."
Reid took a similar view of Sotomayor's towering case file. "I understand that during her career, she's written hundreds and hundreds of opinions," he told reporters today. "I haven't read a single one of them, and if I'm fortunate before we end this, I won't have to read one of them."
But Democrats did seek to diffuse controversy over Sotomayor now-infamous statement in a 2001 University of California-Berkeley speech, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
Some conservatives, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, concluded that Sotomayor relies on personal experiences in her judicial decision-making; a few have suggested that it carries racist overtones. In his meeting with the nominee, Leahy pressed Sotomayor for a clarification. He said she responded, "Of course one's life experience shapes who you are." But she added, "Ultimately and completely, a judge has to follow the law no matter what their upbringing has been."
Sessions said Sotomayor used similar language when he asked her about "the concept of personal feelings to some degree, how that influenced a decision, how it should not." But he said the two spent more time discussing Sotomayor's legal career, as well as "the moral authority of laws and judges." Sessions said "she discussed that forthrightly and I thought in an effective way."