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Obama Picks Sotomayor For High Court

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

An inspiring woman - that's how President Obama described his choice for the Supreme Court this morning. If Judge Sonia Sotomayor is confirmed, she will be the third woman and the first Hispanic justice ever.

President BARACK OBAMA: When Sonia Sotomayor ascends those marble steps to assume her seat on the highest court of the land, America will have taken another important step towards realizing the ideal that is etched above its entrance: Equal justice under the law.

NORRIS: We have several stories on the president's court pick in this part of the program. We'll get started with NPR's legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG: Judge Sotomayor beamed broadly as President Obama summed up her very legal experience as a prosecutor, a private commercial litigator, then as a federal trial judge, and for the last 11 years as an appeals court judge. Quoting Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Mr. Obama said the life of the law is not just logic but experience, and Sotomayor's personal story is one of extraordinary experience.

Pres. OBAMA: When you've shown in your life is that it doesn't matter where you come from, what you look like, or what challenges life throws your way, no dream is beyond reach in the United States of America.

TOTENBERG: Born in New York 54 years ago to Puerto Rican parents, Sotomayor soon faced adversity. Her father, a tool and dye worker, died when she was 9, leaving her mother, a nurse, to work two jobs to support Sonia and her brother. At about the same time, she was diagnosed with diabetes. Raised in the housing projects of the South Bronx, she attended Catholic schools and won a scholarship to Princeton. She was so intimidated in her first year that she never raised her hand to speak in class, but she soon found her sea legs and graduated summa cum laude.

She went on to Yale Law School, where she became an editor of the law review. After Yale, she served for five years as an assistant D.A., followed by seven years in private practice. And then at age 38, she was nominated by the first President Bush to the federal trial bench. Actually, it was a Democrat, then-Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was her angel. And her nomination went forward under an agreement of alternating nominations between Moynihan and Republican Senator Alfonse D'Amato. Today, President Obama alluded to one of her most famous cases as a trial judge.

Pres. OBAMA: One case in particular involved a matter of enormous concern to many Americans, including me: the baseball strike of 1994-95.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pres. OBAMA: In a decision that reportedly took her just 15 minutes to announce - a swiftness much appreciated by baseball fans everywhere…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pres. OBAMA: …she issued an injunction that helped end the strike. Some say that Judge Sotomayor saved baseball.

(Soundbite of applause)

TOTENBERG: In 1997, she was appointed to the federal appeals court by President Clinton. Republicans held up her nomination for a year because they feared she was Supreme Court material. They were right. At the White House this morning, just as Sotomayor's stepped to the microphone, Vice President Biden whispered in her ear.

Judge SONIA SOTOMAYOR (Supreme Court Nominee): I was just counseled not to be nervous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Judge SOTOMAYOR: That's almost impossible.

TOTENBERG: Sotomayor thanked her family, especially her mother, weeping in the front row. And then she recalled that when she was nominated to the court of appeals 12 years ago, she got a private tour of the White House.

Judge SOTOMAYOR: Never in my wildest childhood imaginings, did I ever envision that moment. Let alone, did I ever dream that I would live this moment.

TOTENBERG: Hispanic groups were, needless to say, thrilled. Conservative groups for weeks have branded Sotomayor and other potential nominees as radicals. Today, they used slightly different language. Here, for instance, is Gary Bauer of American Values.

Mr. GARY BAUER (President, American Values): This should not turn into some sort of celebration for diversity, however nice of a goal that is. It ought to be an educational process, so the American people can tell ahead of time whether the president they elected is putting somebody on the court that shares their values.

TOTENBERG: As for the judges who served with Sotomayor on the federal appeals court in New York, both Democratic and Republican appointees praised her hard work, intelligence and independence. Here's former Chief Judge Jon Newman, appointed by President Carter.

Judge JON NEWMAN (Second Circuit Court): She is everything one would want in a first-rate judge.

TOTENBERG: And here is Judge John Walker, appointed by the first President Bush.

Judge JOHN WALKER (Appeals Court Judge): While her views are liberal, I don't consider her to be an ideological judge or an activist judge pushing a political agenda.

TOTENBERG: Few people outside of her fellow judges and White House screeners have actually read most of Judge Sotomayor's opinions at this point. One person who has is Supreme Court advocate Tom Goldstein, founder of the leading Supreme Court blog. And he says flashpoint opinions are few and far between in Sotomayor's record.

Mr. TOM GOLDSTEIN (Blogger of U.S. Supreme Court): I kind of think that the Republicans are in a bit of a corner here. They don't have something that they can really use to illustrate - to show that she's a danger to the Constitution, that she's a radical, that she's a real liberal ideologue. And so attacks on her come across as relatively personal.

TOTENBERG: Republican senators today were noncommittal, saying that they intend to scour Sotomayor's record carefully. Goldstein says that ironically, it wasn't only the right that was disappointed by Sotomayor's appointment.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: The left didn't get somebody who's a visionary, who wants to fight the grandest battles of the Constitution. There's just nothing in her experience, in her past decisions that says she's that kind of justice.

TOTENBERG: So what happens next? The White House, by making this Sotomayor appointment relatively quickly, is aiming for mid-July confirmation hearings, with a vote by the time the Senate takes its summer recess in August. That would not be out of line with the time spent on previous nominations. But nothing is predictable when it comes to Supreme Court confirmations.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.