Washington Sketch: Here Comes Judge Sotomayor — to Lunch With Schumer

The Post's Shailagh Murray speaks with Sarah Lovenheim about Judge Sotomayor's meetings with various senators on Capitol Hill in the weeks leading up to her nomination hearings. Audio by Sarah Lovenheim/The Washington Post, Edited by Emily Kotecki/The Washington Post, Photos by The Washington Post
By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Some senators issue news releases to announce new legislation. Others do it to react to world events. Sen. Chuck Schumer issued a news release to say that he was eating lunch yesterday.

"***PHOTO OPPORTUNITY***," trumpeted the announcement by the New York Democrat. "SCHUMER TO LUNCH WITH JUDGE SOTOMAYOR."

The journalists who bit at the offer were led into Schumer's private office, where the senator, the Supreme Court nominee and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) sat at a table covered in white linen, an untouched bread basket in front of them, admiring a photo on a wall of the Hudson River while awaiting their salads and salmon.

"West Point's got the best view," Schumer said.

"I love West Point," Sonia Sotomayor replied. "I really do. It's just spectacular."

"Yeah," Schumer said. The conversation was flagging. "Let's see -- oh, I got another one," he said, beckoning to a different photo. "See the horse?"

"Mm-hmm," the nominee answered.

After more strained small talk, a reporter had the temerity to ask about Sotomayor's confirmation. "We're not going to take questions," Schumer said.

As President Obama's nominee to the high court began her rounds on Capitol Hill yesterday, her task was to be seen but not heard. In the entirety of her public appearance with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sotomayor's only words were "thank you" -- and those were mouthed, not spoken aloud. She increased her word output 50 percent during her appearance later with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), saying to him: "Thank you, sir."

Rather, it was a time for senators to show how terribly important they are -- so important that a future Supreme Court justice would come to meet with them and to plead her case for confirmation. Ten senators were granted the honor yesterday, not including three -- Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) -- who bumped into her in the ladies room off the Senate floor in between the judge's courtesy calls.

Reid, the majority leader, was awarded Sotomayor's first meeting. So eager was he to praise the nominee that he became tangled in his own cliches. "We have the whole package here," he announced in his office yesterday morning with the smiling Sotomayor seated to his left, her hands folded neatly in her lap. Further, Reid said to her, "you've been an underdog many times in your life but always the top dog."

This left many unanswered questions: Is it acceptable to call the nominee a "package"? Is it possible to be an underdog and the top dog simultaneously?

But there was no time to ponder these mysteries. More than 50 journalists and photographers had to make their way to the Russell Senate Office Building to see Sotomayor pay her next call, this one on Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy. Police and Senate aides tried to keep order as TV cameramen, elbows and equipment flying, shoved their way into the office: "I need this clear! Tuck in! Step to the right! Take it easy!"

Leahy (D-Vt.) led the judge to his desk, which was full of items requiring the chairman's attention. ("Senator: a couple more Dark Knight posters for your autograph" said a note on two Batman posters.) The chairman showed the judge photos of his grandchildren, and Sotomayor responded with probing questions: "How many of them?" "Do you get to see them often?" Sotomayor pointed to a photo of the children swimming. "They're in a pool," she judged, accurately.

Leahy and the nominee posed for a few seconds. "Now, have you all got enough footage?" he asked.

CNN's Ted Barrett tried a question for the judge: "Can you tell us how it feels to be labeled a racist?"

"She's going to have plenty of time to talk about that," Leahy answered for her. Leahy sent the silent nominee to her next visit, then went out to the microphones to speak for her. "I know how difficult it is for somebody who is nominated," he said. "They can't speak out while they're a nominee."

Of course, no gag order is forcing Sotomayor to be silent. But Leahy was happy to be her spokesman yesterday, and he defended her controversial remark that a "wise Latina woman" would make better decisions than a white male. "She said ultimately and completely a judge has to follow the law, no matter what their upbringing has been," Leahy explained.

The nominee, meanwhile, had made her way downstairs to the office of Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the top Republican on the committee. She again came and went without a word to reporters, leaving all the cameras to the senator, who seemed happy to have them. "I enjoyed the conversation, and I think she did," he reported.

Maybe that's because matters of consequence weren't discussed. Did he ask her about the "Latina woman" quote that has enraged conservatives? "No, not directly," Sessions admitted.

By then, the nominee was on her way to lunch in Schumer's office, where the Brooklyn-born senator spoke to the Bronx native about horses. The conversation apparently advanced beyond equine small talk, for Schumer emerged to tell the cameras that "we had a very, very good lunch" and he wasn't talking about the salad. "She's even more impressive in person than she is on paper, and she is really impressive on paper," Schumer announced.

But in the gushing department, Schumer was no match for Reid, who gave a lunchtime news conference of his own where he announced that Sotomayor "is going to be a fantastic, superb Supreme Court justice."

Is there anything in her record that could cause trouble? "I understand that during her career, she's written hundreds and hundreds of opinions," Reid said. "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."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company