Sotomayor Describes Day of Supreme Court Selection for C-Span

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 24, 2009; 11:08 PM

Her family was on the way to Washington, and work on her speech accepting President Obama's nomination to be the next Supreme Court justice had already begun. Only one detail remained for Sonia Sotomayor: Obama had not offered the job.

Sotomayor described her Memorial Day selection process recently with C-Span for a series the network is doing about the court, and it involves a long wait, a hurried drive and a wrong turn.

Sotomayor said she arrived at her office by 8 a.m. that holiday Monday because she had been told by staff that Obama would be making the call that day.

But the only calls Sotomayor received were from anxious family members who wondered if they should heed instructions from White House staff to come to Washington for an announcement the next day.

"Finally, at about 5:00 p.m., they're at the airports and they're still calling asking me whether they should get on the planes, and my response was 'I still don't know. If they haven't pulled you back, I guess you should.'"

At 7, Sotomayor took matters into her own hands.

"I call the White House and say, 'Well you're getting my family to Washington, have any of you given any thought about how I'm going to get there?" Sotomayor recalled.

"And they stopped and said, 'Oh I guess we should figure that out, shouldn't we?' Literally, that was the response. What I was told was that the president had gotten distracted with some important other business that was going on at the time, and that he would call me at about 8 p.m. but that I should go home and pack to come to Washington, and that they would prefer that I didn't take a plane."

(The other business appears to be his first Memorial Day appearances as president, and North Korea's decision to detonate a nuclear device.)

Sotomayor was packing in her lower Manhattan home when the White House operator called at 8:10 p.m. "I actually stood by my balcony doors, and I had the -- my cellphone in my right hand and I had my left hand over my chest trying to calm my beating heart, literally," Sotomayor said. "And the president got on the phone and said to me, 'Judge, I would like to announce you as my selection to be the next Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.'

"And I said to him -- I caught my breath and started to cry and said, 'Thank you, Mr. President.' That was what the moment was like."

C-Span host Susan Swain asked: "And then what?"

"He asked me to make him two promises," Sotomayor said. "The first was to remain the person I was, and the second was to stay connected to my community. And I said to him that those were two easy promises to make, because those two things I could not change."

Sotomayor called a friend and asked him to drive her to Washington. The trip took about six hours because of a torrential rainstorm. The GPS system went out. And when Sotomayor looked up from the speech she continued to write, she realized they were in Virginia, and driving away from the city, not toward it.

She called a clerk who grew up in Washington "and he actually talked us back onto the road and to the hotel."

She arrived at her hotel at 2:30 a.m., slept for three hours, and then was introduced by Obama at the White House.

The interview with Sotomayor is part of C-Span's "Supreme Court Week" series, which begins Oct. 4 with a 90-minute documentary. The network says it has a first for television -- interviews with every current and retired justice.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company