Thursday, May 28, 2009
Lessons from past battles
Members of the White House senior staff watched as President Obama announced his selection of Judge Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court.
Graphic Key People in Sotomayor’s Selection
May 28, 2009
Sotomayor Pick a Product of Lessons From Past Battles
By PETER BAKER and ADAM NAGOURNEY
WASHINGTON — President Obama’s aides were laying down the law. They had invited liberal activists to the White House two weeks ago to discuss his coming Supreme Court selection, but they were not asking for candidates.
Instead, they told the activists not to lobby for their favorites in the news media or talk down candidates they opposed. The message, as one surprised visitor heard it, was “get on board or get out of the way.”
In the months leading up to Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s selection this week, the White House methodically labored to apply lessons from years of nomination battles to control the process and avoid the pitfalls of the past, like appearing to respond to pressure from the party’s base or allowing candidates to be chewed up by friendly fire.
The selection process for Mr. Obama’s first Supreme Court nomination brought together a group that had been thinking about this moment for a long time, from a president who taught constitutional law to a vice president who voted on the confirmation of every member of the current court. Sitting in the room were advisers like Ronald A. Klain and Cynthia Hogan, who have been involved in nomination fights going back to Clarence Thomas.
Even before Justice David H. Souter publicly announced nearly four weeks ago that he was retiring, Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff who lived through two nominations during Bill Clinton’s presidency, commissioned a strategy memorandum from Mr. Klain intended to dictate the process. Secrecy was paramount. As the decision neared, aides disguised meetings on the subject even on the president’s internal schedule by blocking out time under the label “Chief of Staff Strategy.”
From the beginning, Mr. Obama had been focused on Judge Sotomayor, a federal appeals court judge from New York, officials said Wednesday. She had a compelling life story, Ivy League credentials and a track record on the bench. She was a Latina. She was a woman. She checked “each of the grids,” as Mr. Obama’s team later put it. And by the time the opportunity arrived, it became her nomination to lose.
Over the course of the last four weeks, Mr. Obama nursed doubts about Judge Sotomayor and entertained alternatives, aides said. He called around, asking allies about her reputation for brusqueness. At times, he grew increasingly enamored of other candidates, particularly Judge Diane P. Wood, whom he knew from Chicago. But by the time Judge Sotomayor left the White House last Thursday after what Mr. Obama told aides was a “dense discussion” of constitutional law, he was pretty much sold.
“You had to knock her off the pedestal,” Mr. Emanuel said, “and nobody did.”
The selection process got its start in the weeks after Mr. Obama’s election last fall when he gathered advisers in a conference room in downtown Chicago one day. The court was on his mind.
“Just because we don’t have a vacancy right now doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work on it,” he told the group, according to participants. “The day we get a vacancy, we want to have a short list of people ready.”
Mr. Obama already had one in mind and threw out several names, including Judge Sotomayor, aides said. His new White House counsel, Gregory B. Craig, got to work assembling more names. In mid-April, the White House privately got word from Justice Souter that he was preparing to retire at the end of the term in June, and preparations accelerated.
By the time Justice Souter’s decision leaked on April 30, officials said, the White House had full dossiers on nearly all of the major candidates and within days Mr. Obama was given 10-page memorandums on each of them to study over the weekend. By the next week, Mr. Craig’s office gave him 60- to 70-page memorandums on each prospect.
Mr. Obama, who was president of the law review at Harvard and married a Harvard Law School graduate, recently said he became so engrossed in the memorandums that he missed a basketball game one night.
“He didn’t need a Constitutional Law 101 primer to prepare for this,” said Charles J. Ogletree, a Harvard law professor who spoke with Mr. Obama about the process in early May.
“There were five things that were on his mind: age, experience, independence, confidence and diversity,” Mr. Ogletree recalled. “And when I say diversity, it’s not just background and race; I mean diversity of experience, of character, of judgment and of points of view.”
With Mr. Craig also dealing with national security issues, Mr. Emanuel recruited Mr. Klain and Ms. Hogan from Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s office to run the day-to-day process. Mr. Klain, the vice president’s chief of staff, had been involved in nomination fights in the Clinton White House and on Mr. Biden’s Senate staff, while Ms. Hogan, the vice president’s counsel, worked for the Judiciary Committee during three confirmations.
“We wanted people who had been through this before,” said David Axelrod, the president’s senior adviser. “This was not an accident.”
Recalling nominations that had foundered on poor research, the White House team assigned two inside lawyers to vet each candidate’s public speeches and rulings and recruited outside law firms to examine each candidate’s personal finances, taxes, medical history and ethics.
In the end, the White House considered nine candidates. In addition to Judges Sotomayor and Wood, officials said they were Solicitor General Elena Kagan; Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano; Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm of Michigan; Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears of the Georgia Supreme Court; Justice Carlos R. Moreno of the California Supreme Court; Judge Merrick B. Garland of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; and Judge Ruben Castillo of Federal District Court in Illinois.
Mr. Obama quickly found himself being lobbied by fellow Democrats. In an interview, Representative Jose E. Serrano of New York described a campaign he and his colleague Representative Nydia M. Velázquez conducted on behalf of Judge Sotomayor that included a personal plea at the Cinco de Mayo celebration at the White House.
Hoping to shut off as much outside pressure as possible, the White House summoned leaders of liberal groups for a series of meetings, at the White House and elsewhere. The deputy White House chief of staff, Jim Messina, issued the edict about not floating names through the news media or engaging in daily battles about the pros and cons of various candidates, warning that it would be “counterproductive,” participants said.
As he narrowed his choices, aides said, Mr. Obama kept asking for more original writings by the candidates, and he called every member of the Judiciary Committee, something few if any presidents have done.
In his conversations with senators, Mr. Obama did not let on whom he was thinking about, but described what kind of nominee he was looking for and asked for names. “I don’t think he saw the process as him saying, ‘Which of these five people would you oppose or support,’ ” said Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee chairman.
“He asked if I had any suggestions for nominees,” said Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, a member of the committee for 29 years. “This is the first time I’ve ever been called by a president on a Supreme Court nomination, be it a Republican or a Democrat.”
As the president deliberated, Mr. Klain, Ms. Hogan and Dan Pfeiffer, the deputy communications director, began meeting with prospective finalists. To preserve secrecy, they held several sessions around the table of Ms. Hogan’s home in Bethesda, Md. Judge Sotomayor was first interviewed by telephone so she would not be seen coming to Washington.
Four candidates were invited to the White House to interview with Mr. Obama: Judges Sotomayor and Wood, Ms. Kagan and Ms. Napolitano. It was not lost on those under consideration that none who made it to the final stage were men.
“I think they ended up making a bad evidentiary record for themselves by not interviewing one male,” said a judge whose name came up early in the process.
Impressed by Judge Sotomayor, Mr. Obama gathered his team around noon Monday in the dining room off the Oval Office. “I’m almost there,” he said as he ate a salad, one participant recalled. “I think it’s going to be her.”
By 9 p.m., he had called to offer her the job.
“He ended up where we started out,” Mr. Craig said. “After all the work, he was thinking about Sonia Sotomayor at the beginning and he was thinking about her at the end. She withstood four months, five months of intense scrutiny by the White House counsel’s office and third parties.”
Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg contributed reporting.
Posted by Independent Intellect at 11:35