Sotomayor Calls Herself Liberal, Even When the Times Won't

Sheryl Gay Stolberg gushed that Obama Supreme Court nominee Sotomayor "danced a mean salsa" at Princeton, hints she might be some kind of liberal in paragraph 73.

White House reporter Sheryl Gay Stolbergpenned the personality-driven "Woman in the News" look at Obama's Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, "A Trailblazer And a Dreamer."

Sotomayor was described as liberal only once by Stolberg, in indirect and mild fashion, even though the judge was quoted calling herself a liberal in the piece itself.

She was "a child with dreams," as she once said, the little girl who learned at 8 that she had diabetes, who lost her father when she was 9, who devoured Nancy Drew books and spent Saturday nights playing bingo, marking the cards with chickpeas, in the squat red brick housing projects of the East Bronx.

She was the history major and Puerto Rican student activist at Princeton who spent her first year at that bastion of theIvy League"too intimidated to ask questions." She was the tough-minded New York City prosecutor, and later the corporate lawyer with the dazzling international clients. She was the federal judge who "saved baseball" by siding with the players' union during a strike.

NowSonia Sotomayor- a self-described "Nuyorican" whose mother, a nurse, and father, a factory worker, left Puerto Rico during World War II - isPresident Obama's choice for theSupreme Court, with a chance to make history as only the third woman and first Hispanic to sit on the highest court in the land. Her up-by-the-bootstraps tale, an only-in-America story that in many ways mirrors Mr. Obama's own, is one reason for her selection, and it is the animating characteristic of her approach to both life and the law.

Stolberg saw conservative critics of the judge, yet refused to directly call Sotomayor a liberal:

In describing his criteria for a Supreme Court pick, Mr. Obama said he was looking for empathy - a word that conservatives, who are already attacking Judge Sotomayor, have described as code for an activist judge with liberal views who will impose her own agenda on the law. Her critics also raise questions about her judicial temperament, saying she can be abrupt and impatient on the bench.

But Judge Sotomayor's friends say she is simply someone who will bring the "common touch" that the president has said he prizes to her understanding of the law.


When Ms. Sotomayor arrived at Princeton in the fall of 1972, she was one of the only Latinos there: there were no professors, no administrators, and only a double-digit number of students. Princeton women were sharply outnumbered as well; the first ones had been admitted only a few years earlier, and some alumni had protested their increasing ranks. (JusticeSamuel A. Alito Jr., who graduated just a few months before Ms. Sotomayor arrived, belonged to one of the groups that protested.)

(Hmm. Did Alito protest against more women at Princeton? He was a nominal member of a conservative student group, Concerned Alumni of Princeton, which protested affirmative action, but that's not quite the same thing, except perhaps among ultraliberals.)

Stolberg marveled that although Sotomayor was a "grind" at Princeton, "she also smoked, drank beer and danced a mean salsa." She briefly sketched Sotomayor's liberal environment and even quoted the judge calling herself a liberal, which is more than Stolberg was willing to do:

In her fifth year in the office, she was interviewed for The New York Times Magazine about the prosecutors working for [Manhattan District Attorney Robert] Morgenthau. She was described as an imposing woman of 29 who smoked incessantly, and spoke of how she had coped in a job that some liberal friends disapproved of.

"I had more problems during my first year in the office with the low-grade crimes - the shoplifting, the prostitution, the minor assault cases," she said. "In large measure, in those cases you were dealing with socioeconomic crimes, crimes that could be the product of the environment and of poverty.

"Once I started doing felonies, it became less hard. No matter how liberal I am, I'm still outraged by crimes of violence. Regardless of whether I can sympathize with the causes that lead these individuals to do these crimes, the effects are outrageous."

In 1984, Ms. Sotomayor left the district attorney's office and joined Pavia & Harcourt, a boutique commercial law firm in Manhattan.

"We had an opening for a litigator, and her résumé was perfect," said George M. Pavia, the managing partner who hired her. "She's an excellent lawyer, a careful preparer of cases, liberal, but not doctrinaire, not wild-eyed."


But Judge Sotomayor's most celebrated case came in 1995, when she ended a prolonged baseball strike by ruling forcefully against the baseball team owners and in favor of the ballplayers, resulting in a quick resumption of play. For a brief period, she was widely celebrated, at least in those cities with major-league teams, as the savior of baseball.

Not until the 73rd paragraph of the 84-paragraph, 5,000-word piece did Stolberg indirectly hint that Sotomayor just might be ideologically located somewhere vaguely left of center:

Judge Sotomayor has had several rulings that indicate a generally more liberal judicial philosophy than a majority of justices on the current Supreme Court, leading some conservatives to label her a "judicial activist."

In 2000, for example, she wrote an opinion that would have allowed a man to sue a government contractor he accused of violating his constitutional rights. In 2007, she wrote an opinion interpreting an environmental law in a way that would favor more stringent protections, even if it cost power plant owners more money. The Supreme Court reversed both decisions.

The ruling by Judge Sotomayor that has attracted the most attention was a 2008 case upholding an affirmative action program at the New Haven Fire Department. A group of white firefighters sued because the city threw out the results of a test for promotions after few minority firefighters scored well on it. The Supreme Court is now reviewing that result.

By contrast, Samuel Alito's "Man in the News " profile from November 1, 2005, after Bush announced Alito as his Supreme Court nominee, was crammed with ideological labels. The Alito profile by Neil Lewis and Scott Shane began with a flattering anecdote, but quickly added:

While Judge Alito, 55, has built a reputation for decency, he has also compiled a conservative record that is coming under intense scrutiny from activists on the left and the right who understand his potential for shifting the balance on the bench....Judge Alito's jurisprudence has been methodical, cautious, respectful of precedent and solidly conservative, legal scholars said.

So are "decency" and "conservatism" somehow mutually exclusive?

The headline to the jump page hammered the "conservative" theme: "Court Pick Is Described as a Methodical Jurist With a Clear Conservative Record." In all, Alito was labeled conservative five times, and was described as conservative by others twice more.

Finally, an op-ed Wednesday by self-described conservative law professor (and Sotomayor friend) Gerald Magliocca argued the judge should be confirmed without protest by Republicans, given that she shares the president's "measured temperament." How convenient!

I am a conservative, and I did not vote for President Obama. It is perfectly understandable for conservatives to say that they will not vote for anyone the president picks, but at that point the debate, if you can call it that, is over. For those of us who think that intellectual rigor and fairness are the crucial factors, no matter which party the president hails from, there is no question that Judge Sotomayor should be confirmed.

Chief Justice John Roberts said in his confirmation hearings that a judge should behave like an umpire. Now President Obama wants to give the court the judge who actually saved baseball.