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Warming the Room With a Confident Touch

By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Here is what Sonia Sotomayor has revealed about herself, after answering six hours of questions yesterday in her second day of Senate confirmation hearings:

She has a big, full-throated laugh. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), of all people, reduced her to peals of merriment after yet another abortion protester stood up and started yelling.

She uses her hands extensively to communicate. She punched with her fist to show how a criminal broke windows. She formed a square with both hands as if miming a camera and peered through it to tease the photographers incessantly pointing their huge lenses at her.

She likes to turn her full charm on her most intensive questioners, and she is a big toucher. During breaks yesterday, she would carefully push her chair back from the dais where she sits alone, just a judge of 17 years and her yellow legal pad, then step toward the exit. The limp from her broken right ankle is gone; the walking cast has been adjusted so that she can wear a spike heel on her left foot and move with a smooth gait.

She has to walk past some of the Judiciary Committee's Republicans on her way out of Room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building, and in two days, Sotomayor has established a clear routine. She pauses, the men proffer their hands, and she leans in, smiles broadly, puts her hands on their shoulders.

It is the disarming move of a confident and mature woman, a wise Latina, if you will, not that anyone should suggest that men and women move through the world and relate to one another differently, of course.

She seems to pay particular attention to South Carolina's Lindsey O. Graham, who said Monday that he may vote for her, becoming the only Republican on the panel so far to go out on that particular limb. At the morning break, she leaned in close to him, made small talk about her ankle, laid her hand on his shoulder, then his upper arm.

Responding to questions, Sotomayor discusses the intricacies and arcana of her judicial thought and past opinions -- and discusses and discusses. Her answers yesterday tended to be much like her written opinions: They started by laying out the law, with many layers of details about supporting precedents, before reaching their conclusions. This went on too long sometimes for both Republican and Democratic senators. Yesterday, several interrupted her answers, and then the nominee and the questioner tripped over each other to apologize. The beverages that sustain her during this peculiar marathon of senatorial scrutiny are in two glasses on her desk. One holds water, and the other flat Sprite.

Her speaking style is deliberative and slow, but she is hardly a stiff. She tends to correct herself in mid-sentence. Every now and then, the New York native in her seeps out: In describing for Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) how nunchucks work, she pointed out that they can "bust someone's skull."

Mid-afternoon, an abortion protester's outburst interrupted Grassley's questioning. After Capitol Police officers cleared the man from the room, the senator commented, "People always say I have the remarkable ability to turn people on."

Sotomayor dissolved in hearty laughter for several seconds, then posited that she might not be able to remember what she was saying after that.

The ready humor first displayed itself 20 minutes into yesterday's hearing.

"So tell us," the committee chairman, Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), invited. "You've heard all of these charges and countercharges, the 'wise Latina' and on and on. Here's your chance."

Sotomayor's first response was to smile, broadly.

Then she chuckled.

Then she said, wryly, "No words I have ever spoken or written have received so much attention."

Senators hammered Sotomayor for that remark all day, but she took no umbrage at any of the questioning. When Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the panel, was grilling her for a decision and suggested she could have voted along with one of her fellow judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, "himself of Puerto Rican ancestry," several of Sotomayor's friends and colleagues behind her grimaced in exasperation. The judge's face betrayed no change in her expression of active listening.

One senator seemed ready to pronounce Sotomayor's demeanor ready for the nation's highest court.

"This nominee, I think, has been very straightforward," said Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), one of two women on the 19-member panel. "She has not used catchy phrases. She has answered the questions directly the best she could. And to me, that gets points. I must say that, if there's a test for judicial temperament, you pass it with an A-plus-plus. I want you to know that, because I wanted to respond, and my adrenaline was moving along. And you have just sat there, very quietly, and responded to questions that, in their very nature, are quite provocative. So I want to congratulate you about that."

At that, Sotomayor gave the slightest nod of thanks, and a broad smile.

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