Ethnicity and Gender Play Prominent Roles in Sotomayor's Speeches

By Alec MacGillis, Amy Goldstein and Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 5, 2009

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor once told a group of minority lawyers that she believed a delay in her confirmation as a federal appeals judge a decade ago was driven partly by Republican lawmakers' ethnic stereotypes of her, suggesting that the tensions surrounding her current nomination are hardly new to the New York jurist.

"I was dealt with on the basis of stereotypes . . . and it was painful . . . and not based on my record," she told the lawyers in New York in 1998. "I got a label because I was Hispanic and a woman and [therefore] I had to be liberal."

The remark was one piece of a portrait that emerges in scores of Sotomayor speeches released by the White House yesterday, showing a strong-willed jurist who has exacting expectations of herself and those who come before her -- and who is driven by a powerful ethnic pride and a belief that she has an obligation to lift up fellow people of color.

"The Latina in me is an ember that blazes forever," she told Hispanic law students at Hofstra University in 1996.

The 84 speeches also shed more light on the personal side of the 54-year-old appeals court judge, who was raised in a Puerto Rican family in the Bronx and has been cloistered from the public since her nomination to the Supreme Court nine days ago. She has little patience for long-winded lawyers and bad grammar -- "each time I see a split infinitive, an inconsistent tense structure or the unnecessary use of the passive voice, I blister."

She loves talking about Puerto Rican delicacies. And she has a sense of humor that borders on the salty. Lamenting her big caseload as a federal trial judge, she told law students in 1994 that she admired a colleague who went to work at 7 in the morning but that she could not do the same: "I am a New Yorker, and 7:00 am is a civilized hour to finish the day, not to start it."

The speeches were accompanied by a voluminous questionnaire that, among other things, confirm Sotomayor's status as a front-runner for the nomination from the beginning. She said White House Counsel Gregory B. Craig contacted her on April 27 about an opening on the court, though news reports that Justice David H. Souter was retiring did not air until three days later.

Sotomayor said she has had nearly daily contact with the White House staff since Craig's call; the White House would not comment on whether others on President Obama's list were called that early or had such intensive contact with the president's staff, along with her meeting with Obama on May 21.

The speeches hint at the breadth of Sotomayor's experience, and touch on sentencing guidelines, intellectual property law and the differences between trial and appeals court judging. She appeared before many law schools, as well as groups as eclectic as the American Bankruptcy Institute, corrections officers in Brooklyn and a New Jersey Boy Scout troop.

Many of her speeches were to members of the Hispanic legal community in which she has been active and touch on some of the same topics of ethnic identity that have arisen around her nomination. One of the most frequent criticisms of Sotomayor since her nomination cites a speech she gave at the University of California at Berkeley in 2001 in which she said, "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."

Obama has said that she regretted the wording in hindsight, but the speeches released yesterday suggest that while she had not used the precise words before, the sentiments behind the remark were hardly isolated.

In a 1999 speech to the Women's Bar Association of New York State, Sotomayor invoked "sister power," called for the selection of a third woman Supreme Court justice -- which she would now be -- and used phrasing similar to that in the Berkeley speech. "I would hope that a wise woman with the richness of her experiences would, more often than not, reach a better conclusion," she said.

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