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Post Politics: Why White House Selected Sotomayor, GOP Opposition, More

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Michael D. Shear
Washington Post White House Reporter
Wednesday, May 27, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post White House reporter Michael D. Shear was online Wednesday, May 27 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, possible GOP opposition to the pick, and the latest news about the White House and Congress.

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Michael D. Shear: Good morning, everyone. Well, there's never a drought of things to talk about with this president. We've got a supreme court nominee who has already begun making waves in the conservative community.

Let's get at it.

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Omaha, Neb.: Why does Sotomayor's life story matter so much? It sounds very uplifting and inspiring, it would make a great biography, but I don't understand why this should matter in a SC Justice. I understand why it's important in a politician: they craft legislation based, in part, on their life experiences. But shouldn't a SC Justice look only to existing law?

Michael D. Shear: Here's a good one to start with.

I suspect this question may form the core of the arguments during the next several months. Conservatives will argue that her story should not be relevant, and in fact they will charge that her statements suggest that she will bring too much of her own personal world-view to her judging, rather than relying on the law.

Liberals, and the White House, have already started arguing two things: 1) that her experience adds something important to her application of the law as she makes judgements about the constitution; and 2) that a look at her nearly two decades as a judge reveals a record in which she does in fact rely on the law and the constitution to make her decisions.

There seems to be little doubt that Democrats at this point have the numbers to confirm her. But the outcome of that debate over her life story will be important to watch.

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New York, N.Y.: Hello,

Is more known about Judge Sotomayor's views on abortion? I would hope she is pro-choice, but I haven't read anything anywhere that explicitly states she is. In fact, a lot is written about her being a Roman Catholic, and how that might be affecting her views.

I am sure President Obama would not pick someone who is not pro-choice, or even wishy-washy on the subject, but my worry is she will pull a Souter over time. I am looking forward to hearing her views at the confirmation hearings. Do you know when the hearings might begin?

Thank you for taking my questions!

Michael D. Shear: This is one of those mysteries that is rare to Washington.

White House officials, when asked, said the president did not inquire about abortion specifically. And the judge has almost no rulings on abortion, so we don't know how she views the issue. I suspect that the president has a sense of her broader worldview that might suggest she is pro-choice. But as you say, she was raised Catholic, so that might suggest the other way.

The subject will almost certainly come up among the senators at the hearings, which will likely start in August.

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Helena, Mont.: I think the nomination of Sotomayor to SCOTUS is brilliant in that it is a wedge issue for Obama -- Republicans can oppose her, but they risk alienating women and Hispanics doing it. It is all plus for Obama and all minus for Republicans -- it looks like a no-win for Republicans no matter how they handle it. And, given the ham-handedness of their base, we will soon have the misogyny and anti-Hispanic comments to chuckle over. Don't imagine there is a chance that she would be successfully filibustered (Franken should be seated by then and Kennedy should be back, so Dems will have 60 votes on cloture).

Michael D. Shear: The White House was careful yesterday to insist that the president did not make this decision based on a political calculation.

That said, his advisers are clearly aware of -- and happy about -- the box that the choice puts Republicans in. The 2008 election proved that hispanics are becoming a key voting bloc and that if they align permanently with Democrats, it will be very difficult for Republicans to win the presidency. (Think Florida, New Mexico, Arizona all in Democratic hands.) As we said in our story this morning, if Republicans choose to wage an all-out war against Sotomayor, who would be the first Latino justice, they risk alienating further this growing and critical constituency.

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Prop 8: In light of the California Supreme Court's affirmation of the validity of Prop 8, do you think that Obama will have more pressure on him than before to reverse his stance against gay marriage? He's been getting an incredible pass on this issue, both from the media and gay marriage supporters, but I'm finding it hard to believe that that can continue, especially if there's a movement to (again) amend the California Constitution.

Michael D. Shear: The White House showed no interest yesterday in getting involved in this fight. I suspect that will continue, even if there's another move to amend the state constitution.

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Arlington, Va.: On the front page this morning, a story on the Court nominee mentions Rush Limbaugh, a radio talk show host. Things like this, I am sorry to say, reflects The Post's ongoing shift into a Daily Kos-type format. I know that the DNC wants every time that they mention Republicans, they mention Limbaugh...but newspapers are supposed to be above that. This is a radio talk show host who has never run for office.

Why doesn't The Post say, "And Keith Olberman said"? It's shameful, and you can blame the business model all you want, but clear politicking like this, in the news section in print, is shameful.

washingtonpost.com: First Latina Picked for Supreme Court; GOP Faces Delicate Task in Opposition

Michael D. Shear: I'm not sure I understand the criticism here.

Rush Limbaugh has 13.5 million listeners every week. He is one of the loudest voices in the Republican party, and though he's never run for office, many of the party's elected leaders come to his defense (see Dick Cheney, for example) as someone the party should listen to.

As for today, he hardly was trying to stay out of the news. He made some extraordinarily tough statements about her, and I think that's newsworthy -- not politicking on our part to include it.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: Given the nation's economic troubles, has anyone asked the White House why Obama chose someone with a history of disfavoring business interests? Isn't her favortism for those suing business the biggest difference between Sotomayor and Souter?

Michael D. Shear: I'm not sure that's the case. The Wall Street Journal's analysis of her court rulings concluded that: "Judge Sonia Sotomayor has built a record on such issues as civil rights and employment law that puts her within the mainstream of Democratic judicial appointees."

The Journal found that she indeed has ruled in favor of plaintiffs against business interest, but they also suggested that her record is not absolute.

"Her record in more than 4,000 cases, including those from 11 years on the Second Circuit, shows her occasional siding with corporate defendants or diverting from a standard liberal position," the Journal wrote.

"The judge has favored corporate defendants in suits that test when cases can be brought as class actions. Judges often must determine whether plaintiffs' claims should be pre-empted by more defense-friendly federal and international laws."

"There is no reason for the business community to be concerned" about Judge Sotomayor, said Lauren Rosenblum Goldman, a partner at Mayer Brown LLP who has represented businesses including Wachovia Corp. and Dow Chemical Co."

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One Conservative's View:: I'm actually not sure this isn't the least awful appointment we could have hoped to see.

It wasn't as though Obama was going to appoint a qualified strict constructionist anyway, so I guess we should be glad he didn't choose someone like himself.

Plus, she's a twofer, which takes off some of the pressure for the next one.

Michael D. Shear: Interesting view from a self-avowed conservative.

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Reality , U.S.A: Both parties strive to select candidates that exhibit a "bias" that conforms with their political views, yet, they both attack and castigate the other side for doing so; proclaiming that the judiciary should be "independent and objective." Seems to be a rather large and ridiculous zeppelin of hypocrisy, even by Washington D.C. standards. Are we the public not supposed to notice?

Michael D. Shear: Ha! Good point. But what would the press write about if hypocrisy were to be eliminated from our public dialogue?

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Concord, N.H.: The Barnes/Fletcher story today ledes with the unprovable assertion that in Sotomayor, Obama chose the "most controversial" of his potential nominees. Why was it appropriate for the Post to introduce her this way? (FWIW, I'm far from sold on her, but I've seen at least some Obama critics describe her as the best of the worst, suggesting she might not be all that controversial.)

washingtonpost.com: Riskiest Choice on Obama's List Embodies His Criteria

Michael D. Shear: I think the story was intended as an analysis of Obama's choice that attempts to provide readers a deeper understanding of the consequences and import of the choice the president made.

Bob and Mike clearly talked to expert court watchers who believe that Sotomayor offered President Obama rewards, but also risks, and the story attempted to document those.

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Roseland, N.J.: A friend e-mailed me this q and it's not a bad one.

Who gets seated first: Justice Sotomayor, or Sen. Franken?

Michael D. Shear: I beieve the thinking is that Franken is likely to be seated this summer, before the hearings begin for judge Sotomayor. But of course, in politics nothing is certain, so I suspect there could be a way that the Franken seating gets delayed.

Stay tuned.

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Sotomayor would not become the FIRST Hispanic Supreme Court Justice: DC's own Cardozo High School is named after Portuguese-American Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Nathan Cardozo (1870-1938), who served on the Court from 1932 till his death. While some try to claim that European Portuguese are not Hispanics, Iberian Spaniards like Placido Domingo, Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas are counted as Hispanics. What about a South American like Brazilian Indy winner Helio Castroneves? Additionally, it's not uncommon for colleges that offer Portuguese language courses to do so in their department of Hispanic Languages. And Portuguese-Californian Congressman Dennis Cardoza belongs to the House Hispanic Caucus. So, if confirmed, I say that Judge Sotomayor would NOT be the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice.

Michael D. Shear: Lots of people are emailing about this. Our Supreme Court reporter has looked into this. He reports: Cardozo was a Sephardic Jew of Portugese descent who never identified as an hispanic.

Here's what my other colleague, Al Kamen, wrote about the issue on May 15:

SENOR JUSTICE?

Some readers have complained that recent Post articles were inaccurate in saying that, should she be picked and confirmed, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court. That honor, they say, goes to Justice Benjamin Cardozo, who served in the 1930s.

These are often squishy questions, but our research indicates it would be a bit of a stretch to list Cardozo as the first Hispanic justice. Cardozo was from a Portuguese-Jewish family that fled the Inquisition in the 17th century and went to the Netherlands and England. (More than likely they arrived in Portugal from North Africa, so maybe some would argue he was actually the first Arab American on the court?) The family emigrated to New York in 1752, only 257 years ago.

The Census Bureau says that "Hispanics or Latinos are those people who classified themselves in one of the specific Spanish, Hispanic, or Latino categories listed on the Census 2000 questionnaire."

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New York, N.Y.: My question is why the press in general - and WaPo in particular -- doesn't provide even more context for hypocrisy you encounter in your reporting? Considering it's your bread and butter, I'd love to see the Post call out specific people for throwing a hissy about something (reconciliation, for example) who threw no prior hissies when it was their side doing it. Yes, I'm talking about Sen. Olympia Snowe!

Michael D. Shear: I agree, New York. We should call them out more for the hypocrisy.

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Abingdon, Md.: As if we haven't had enough going on already, how is the White House viewing the North Korea situation: more sabre rattling from the North or a much more significant event that could really require us to do something (other than suggest more UN sanctions--apparently having little to no effect)? As you said, there seems to be no shortage of things to discuss in this administration...

Michael D. Shear: In my conversations with White House officials, my sense is they are taking the North Korea situation seriously, but also view it as a potential opportunity to rally previously reticent countries (China, etc.) behind tough new language, and maybe sanctions, against the regime.

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Prescott, Ariz.: Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard said of Sotomayor:

"Does anyone dispute that Sotomayor has been the recipient of preferential treatment for most of her life?"

Pat Buchanon said on MSNBC that she is an "affirmative action hire."

Is there any evidence that her accolades and awards were not earned in the way us white guys usually earn them: acceptance to Princeton as a "legacy" despite our lousy grades, acceptance into Yale thanks to a few well-timed calls from Uncle Bob and a couple of his 1962 championship lacrosse team buddies, and that first job at that prestigious law firm that is coincidentally headed by daddies law school roommate?

I'd hate to think Sotomayor got to where she is due to favors.

washingtonpost.com: Goldfarb: Sotomayor @ Princeton: "Uniform Treatment of All Candidates"

Michael D. Shear: Interesting comment.

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washingtonpost.com: Wall Street Journal: Record Shows Rulings Within Liberal Mainstream

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Arlington, Va.: "Michael D. Shear: I'm not sure I understand the criticism here."

Michael, me again. The criticism is rather than getting comments from elected GOP officials, you quote a radio talk show host who isn't elected.

Why not, instead of a quote from Schummer, you quote Ariana Huffington or Keith Olberman.

I know this is a DNC tactic, to mention Limbaugh whenever possible, but the POST is a NEWSPAPER. A newspaper...not a DNC publication.

Michael D. Shear: Ok, Arlington. I get your point. You're clearly embarrassed by Limbaugh and prefer that he is not seen as a spokesman for the party, and that the news media would ignore him in favor of elected Republican leaders.

First, I think any fair reading of our coverage would find that we quote elected Republicans FAR more often than Limbaugh. There's no shortage of them in our paper.

Second, the Republican party is struggling to find it's voice, and lots of smart GOP people have acknowledged that there's a vacuum of leadership right now, giving Limbaugh an outsized voice. When President Bush was in office and Republicans were in charge of Congress, I'm quite sure we quoted Limbaugh less.

Third, I agree with your basic point that we should not ignore Huffington or Olberman when they say things intended to be outrageous or attention-grabbing. But I return to the flip side of my previous point: There is a Democratic president and a Congress led by Democrats so we are more likely to turn there than to those two.

I reject the idea that we are a DNC publication, by the way. But thanks for the questions this morning.

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Pittsburgh: It's being reported that Judge Sotomayor's comment re Appeals Courts making policy was taken out of context, in that she was referring to the fact that District Courts try cases based on evidence. By contrast, Appeals Courts review cases based on procedure, and most end there and go no higher up the judicial chain because the Supreme Court grants certiorari to so few cases.

Do you consider this explanation legitimate, or merely spin?

Michael D. Shear: its definitely spin, but that doesn't mean it's not also true. The White House would say she is in fact trying to say something about the relative breadth of the impact of district versus appeals courts -- that district courts deal with individual cases while appeals courts have a broader impact on law and policy.

However, I think that quote and the context will be much debated and people will have to decide for themselves. And most importantly, the senators will have to decide what they think she really meant.

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Michael D. Shear: That's all we have time for now. Thanks for all the good questions. See you next time.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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