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.
White House adviser Stephanie Cutter said: "Efforts by critics to point to a handful of clauses in speeches are misguided. Judge Sotomayor's record on the bench, and her speeches and writings as a whole, speak to her fairness and her dedication to the rule of law."
More generally, Sotomayor's speeches display an abiding ethnic pride and exhortations of Latino self-help, usually coupled with statistics showing the extent to which Hispanics trail non-Hispanics in education and income.
Her ethnic consciousness was strengthened in her undergraduate years at Princeton, she said in a 1996 speech there. After being taught by her family in New York City to "love America," she arrived at Princeton and felt so out of place that she was initially scared by the sound of crickets. And she discovered "that in this society . . . people of color are different from the larger society, that we must work harder to overcome the problems our communities face, and that we must work together as people of color to achieve changes."
Her calls to ethnic solidarity were often coupled with critiques of America's "deeply confused" tendency to boast of its diversity while seeking to assimilate minorities.
"We are a nation that takes pride in our ethnic diversity, recognizing its importance in shaping our society and in adding richness to its existence," she told the National Puerto Rican Coalition in 1998. "Yet, we simultaneously insist that we can and must function and live in a race- and color-blind way that ignores those very differences that in other contexts we laud."
But Sotomayor also refers to the need for judicial dispassion. "It is very important when you judge to recognize that you have to stay impartial. That's what the nature of my job is. I have to unhook myself from my emotional responses and try to stay within my unemotional, objective persona," she said in 2000.
In one speech, she pointedly recalled her experience in 1998 when Senate Republicans delayed for more than a year her confirmation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. In the speech to the Cervantes Society just after the confirmation, she described what it had been like to have her nomination be targeted by Rush Limbaugh, the radio host who is now also leading the charge against her nomination. She said her nomination to the appellate bench had been pushed through in part because Hispanic organizations vocally supported her.
Sotomayor's submission to the Senate Judiciary Committee states that in many cases, she no longer has copies of her remarks. She provided text for 83 of the 187 speeches she says she can document having given from 1993 until April of this year.
The document submitted to the committee catalogues all of Sotomayor's decisions in 17 years as a federal judge, awards she has received and groups of which she has been a member. In detailing her finances, Sotomayor listed a net worth of $740,000, consisting primarily of equity in a $1 million condo in New York's Greenwich Village. She reported having $32,000 in cash and bank accounts, and personal property worth $108,000. Sotomayor reported that she owned no stocks, bonds, mutual funds or other non-real-estate investments.
Under liabilities, she listed a $381,000 mortgage, $15,000 in credit card bills and a $15,000 dentist's bill.
In her speeches, Sotomayor takes particular pride in the strides she made with English -- after arriving at Princeton, she found that her years speaking Spanish had left her with bad habits in English. She describes how she managed to overcome this by rereading books such as "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "Pride and Prejudice" to the point where, despite considering herself "merely an average writer," she became a stickler for good prose.
But she also speaks often about the nagging self-doubt that she says is familiar to many Latinos. "As accomplished as I have been in my professional settings, I am always looking over my shoulder wondering if I measure up and always concerned that I have to work harder to succeed," she said in a 2002 speech at Cardozo School of Law. "This is a pathology of successful Latinos and other accomplished individuals who come from economically deprived populations."
Staff writers Jerry Markon, Michael D. Shear and Joe Stephens; research director Lucy Shackelford; and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.