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The un-routine sets apart Sotomayor's first term

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2010; A01

Several partygoers were on their way into the Supreme Court one Saturday evening in May to toast retiring Justice John Paul Stevens when they ran into Justice Sonia Sotomayor. She was not heading to the festivities, but coming from her chambers, where she'd been putting in a weekend shift.

She looked neither tired from the long hours nor overwhelmed by her new responsibilities, one of the partygoers noticed. "She was beaming."

In some ways, Sotomayor's just-finished first term on the court was like those of many who have come before her: She worked constantly, turned down interview requests and most speaking engagements, wrote unglamorous and largely noncontroversial opinions and was ideologically true to the president who appointed her. She voted with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg more than any other colleague on the court.

But the court's first Hispanic member, and only its third woman, has hardly had the typical first-termer's experience.

She danced at the White House to a song written in her honor. She arrived in her parents' homeland of Puerto Rico to a heroine's welcome and to find T-shirts and coffee mugs bearing her likeness and the words "wise Latina." The Bronx public housing project where she grew up is now the Justice Sonia Sotomayor Houses. When the New York Yankees visited the White House after winning the World Series, team officials made a detour to lug the trophy to her chambers.

Few justices are tracked down at a Manhattan Chinese restaurant by the Daily News, as Sotomayor was last week, when she was asked about the menu (she loves the dumplings) and whether Lindsay Lohan should have been sentenced to jail.

"You know I wouldn't answer that question," a grinning Sotomayor told the reporter. "But I really admire your chutzpah." She added, "That's a New York word."

Still a New Yorker

Sotomayor, 56, remains a New Yorker. She told friends she was looking forward to returning to Manhattan as soon as the term ended, and she has not bought a place in Washington. She has expressed a common New York complaint about Washington: Not enough restaurants deliver.

Still, she is a familiar -- and often recognized -- face in Washington, frequenting the Kennedy Center, dining out with friends, admiring the produce at the "social Safeway" and taking her mother on a tour of Eastern Market. Those who have encountered her report that she has a politician's gift for signing autographs and posing for photos.

Sotomayor has declined to talk to reporters at length, including for this article. But she has delivered commencement addresses at colleges with a personal connection. She handed her niece a diploma at St. Lawrence University, and she spoke to the community college in the Bronx where her mother Celina received a nursing degree.

"This past year, I have often felt like I was living in a dream, wondering when someone was going to pinch me to wake me up," she told the St. Lawrence graduates. "The hours can be long, but I have found that the long hours are painless when you are doing what you love. And I love my job."

Back in Washington, she has admirers -- including members of the court she joined -- and detractors, including Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who say Sotomayor has broken pledges they believe she made at her confirmation hearings last summer.

She has received public accolades from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Antonin Scalia, and friends say she developed a close relationship with Stevens.

"She is not only a really nice, gracious person, she hasn't wasted any time at all in going to work and doing her work thoroughly and carefully as a lawyer should," Stevens said in a recent interview, playing down the idea that he serves as an adviser. "If somebody's qualified for this job, they're qualified the day they're sworn in. She's definitely qualified."

Sotomayor was a judge for 17 years before arriving at the Supreme Court, the last 11 spent on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. Paul Clement, who practices before the high court and served as solicitor general under President George W. Bush., said he was impressed at "how comfortable she seems in the role already." If anything, Sotomayor struck some as a little too eager early on. She asked 36 questions in the first argument of the term -- more than any other justice -- and was mildy rebuked by Ginsburg for interrupting with a question before counsel had finished with the senior justice's inquiry.

Those who practice before the court find that she is prepared with detailed questions and has a businesslike manner of establishing the terms of the conflict. As the junior justice, she sits far to the chief justice's left and often looks down the bench for her colleagues' reactions.

Apparently the frilly jabot that she received as a gift from Ginsburg is for special occasions only. For arguments, she wears a plain black robe; the only adornments are large dangling earrings and metallic cuff bracelets that glint as she gestures.

Her remarks are rarely the kind of quips that are marked in transcripts as being followed by laughter. But when she delivered the opinion in a recent case involving the Italian cruise ship company Costa Crociere, she lightheartedly called on Scalia to pronounce the company name for her. He complied, elaborately.

"I always want to use a Spanish accent," she said.

The opinions she has written have not been flashy or the kind that make headlines. In one, she used the term "undocumented immigrant," apparently for the first time in a court opinion, instead of "illegal immigrant."

She has sided with the liberal wing of the court on issues in which ideology appeared to play a role in the outcome, such as gun rights, religious symbols on public land and life sentences without parole for juveniles in non-homicide cases.

"The first thing to say is that there haven't been many surprises," said John Oldham McGinnis, a law professor at Northwestern University. "She appears to be a typical member of the liberal wing." He remarked that experts have said members don't come into their own until serving five years or so. David H. Souter, the justice whom Sotomayor replaced, had been nominated by President George H.W. Bush, and during his first year on the court, he seemed to fit comfortably in its conservative wing. He ended up being a reliable liberal vote.

But McGinnis said Sotomayor has a longer track record as a judge than did Souter, and he sees no reason to believe that her ideology will change.

It is hard to find a significant case in which Sotomayor's replacement of Souter made a difference in the outcome. Doug Kendall of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center holds out hope that she will vote for corporate interests less often than Souter did.

'Formidable personality'

"She's been a formidable personality on the court from the first day on the bench, when she questioned whether corporations have the same constitutional rights as we the people," Kendall said.

Pamela Harris, executive director of Georgetown Law Center's Supreme Court Institute, said she found Sotomayor's most compelling writing in a dissent. In a case testing the famous Miranda rule, Sotomayor objected to the court's 5 to 4 decision, which shifted to suspects the burden of invoking the right to remain silent.

At the time of Sotomayor's nomination by President Obama, some had speculated that her former job as a prosecutor might make her less sympathetic to criminal defendants. But she criticized the court's conservative majority for a "substantial retreat from the protection against compelled self-incrimination."

"I think she'll play an important role in these kinds of cases in the future," Harris said.

Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee are concerned that Sotomayor has not lived up to her pledges. At her hearings last summer, she told the committee that she considered the court's 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which held for the first time that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to gun ownership, to be "settled law." But when the court last month extended the Second Amendment's reach to local and state governments, Sotomayor joined a dissent that raised questions about whether Heller had been properly decided. Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.) accused Sotomayor of insincerely telling the senators what they wanted to hear.

And Coburn wrote to Sotomayor after she joined the majority opinion that declared juvenile life-without-parole sentences unconstitutional. He objected to the decision's having found support in the idea that the United States is virtually alone in allowing the punishment. "Its conclusion conflicts with your pledge to the Judiciary Committee and the American public 'not to use foreign law to interpret the Constitution,' " he wrote. Coburn acknowledged that the opinion did not rely on foreign law as a precedent.

Being a Supreme Court justice, though, means not explaining your actions beyond the opinion you sign. And in her speeches, Sotomayor has disclosed little of life on the court.

What she has said mostly flatters her colleagues. "It is the level of respect and affection that surprised me," she told the National Association of Women Judges.

"One wouldn't necessarily come to that conclusion" from reading the often-biting opinions and dissents from the ideologically divided court, she said, even though the justices always insist that their differences are not personal. "I was always a little bit dubious. I no longer am," she said.

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