WASHINGTON — From her early days as a lawyer, Sonia Sotomayor never was content to be what she calls the “fifth guy on the totem pole.”
The portrait of Sotomayor that has emerged from hour upon hour of testimony before the Judiciary Committee this week is that of a judge who is confident, disciplined and unflappable — but also unafraid to admit she’s goofed up, willing to share a laugh with her critics and unembarrassed to recount details of her favorite childhood TV show.
In some ways Americans are getting a first and last look at Sotomayor. Little known before President Barack Obama nominated her to the Supreme Court, Sotomayor will largely disappear once again after her nomination is approved, cloaked in a black robe and cloistered in a marble edifice.
In her two days in the spotlight Sotomayor has revealed herself to be a hugger and a baseball fan, a lover of history and a dutiful daughter. Also, a tough verbal sparring partner, politically astute and unwaveringly on-message.
Again and again senators probed and prodded Sotomayor over what she had been thinking with her past suggestions that a “wise Latina” could well reach a better conclusion than a white man. Sotomayor quickly dismissed her past words as a rhetorical flourish that fell flat. And from then on, there was no budging her from the message of the day: a simple pledge of fidelity to the law.
“We apply law to facts,” she said. “We don’t apply feelings to facts.”
Sotomayor, an avowed fan of baseball, was confident enough in her performance to sneak in a few moments of Tuesday night’s All-Star game, although she confessed she hadn’t seen much television for “a very long time” while prepping for her confirmation hearings.
When questioning at the hearing got prickly, Sotomayor did not.
She held her tongue, even laughing along with some of her toughest questioners.
At the same time, Sotomayor showed traits in the hearings that are familiar to those who have appeared before her in court.
She is, for example, an intent listener who appears riveted to every word she hears from each speaker, friendly or not.
But it took a batch of reviews by lawyers — summarized for the hearing by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — to begin to flesh out another side of her on the bench.
She can be a fierce, probing questioner who wants her answers in a New York minute.
Sotomayor neither confirmed nor denied the characterizations of some anonymous lawyers that she’s a “terror on the bench,” “makes inappropriate outbursts” and “can be a bit of a bully.”
Instead she said, “I ask the hard questions, but I do it evenly for both sides.”
Empathetic? Perhaps. But not a softie.
After all, this is a former New York prosecutor whose testimony included references to busting skulls with nunchuks and who took a lengthy detour into a discussion of the chilling details of the “Tarzan murderer” case she helped handle.
Sotomayor got playful with one of her critics, conjuring up a hypothetical situation to explain her thinking on the right to self defense. When questioned on the issue by Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Sotomayor talked about what would happen legally if she decided to go after the senator, went home to get a gun and came back to shoot him. She hastened to add: “I don’t want to suggest I am, by the way.”
Coburn laughingly told her, “You’ll have lots of ‘splainin’ to do,” evoking the old Ricky Ricardo line from “I Love Lucy.”
Sotomayor laughed along, no offense taken.
Sotomayor admitted she’s a New Yorker through and through, but said she tries to broaden her perspectives by making it a point to stay in someone’s home, rather than a hotel, when she travels. She told of her modest upbringing in the South Bronx, where she was a devoted fan of TV’s “Perry Mason,” the defense lawyer who almost never lost a case. In one episode, Sotomayor said, the prosecutor who almost always lost to Mason said he didn’t mind, because justice was served.
“That TV character said something that motivated my choices in life,” she said.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., told Sotomayor that he, too, had loved the show as a child and added that her decision to become a prosecutor even though the district attorney usually lost “says something about your determination to defy the odds.”
Sotomayor also told of her decision to head for a small law office after her prosecutor days, rather than a megafirm where she’d be “the fifth guy on the totem pole.”
“I wanted to have more hands-on experience,” she said.
Even Republican critics on the panel acknowledged she’d held up well in the arduous hearings.
Just the kind of performance to put a wise Latina on track to become the ninth “guy” on the Supreme Court totem pole.
Associated Press writers Calvin Woodward and Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.