A calm, focused nominee faces Senate

Intensely focused, Sonia Sotomayor sits like a statue as senator after senator addresses her, as well as a nationwide TV audience, at her confirmation hearing for Supreme Court justice. Occasionally, she nods her head when one of them says something particularly nice about her.

But for the most part Sotomayor maintains a steady glare at those speaking to her, just as she has glared at the lawyers who’ve come before her in the 17 years she’s been a federal judge in New York.

Sotomayor’s eyes never stray from the face of the speaker, however unsavory the message coming her way. Her lips remain closed. It is as if she is still wearing a robe rather than a bright blue jacket draped over her shoulders, the stage lights of a Senate hearing room upon her.

Maintaining that calm demeanor might be a tougher challenge Tuesday and Wednesday for a judge used to being the questioner, the power figure in control of the room, when the questions are being fired at her from senators holding the power to give her a lifetime appointment to the high court.

Her demeanor Monday was familiar to those who have watched her over the years in the courts, where she generally kept her comments to the legal issues before her and glared intently at each speaker, sometimes leaning over the bench.

In court, she was known to sometimes interrupt lawyers when they didn’t seem to be getting to the point in addressing a legal issue she was exploring. She was often forceful, but not angry.

Early in her judicial career, she acknowledged that "people who meet me initially often get intimidated by me."

"I think in retrospect it is my intensity," she said then, adding that when people get to know her they don’t find her forbidding.

On Monday, Sotomayor was mostly pokerfaced and barely moved her head. During the shouts of an anti-abortion activist in the morning, she turned reassuringly toward her mother and brother, smiling slightly.

After more than three hours of opening statements Monday from the Senate Judiciary Committee’s 19 members, Sotomayor seemed in good spirits. When it came her turn for her opening statement, she broke into a wide smile when mentioning her most famous case as a judge, a 1995 ruling that restored professional baseball after a lengthy strike.

The most emotion she showed was when she turned to acknowledge her mother, Celina, seated behind her right shoulder, as the person who created a home environment in the rough streets of the South Bronx that made it possible for her and her brother to excel in school.

"I am here, as many of you have noted, because of her aspirations and sacrifices for both my brother, Juan, and me. Mom," she said, pausing to lock eyes briefly with a mother who seemed to match her misty-eyed expression.

Even her critics were impressed.

"I give Judge Sotomayor an A," Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said after opening remarks in which she also described her modest upbringing, her love of education and her own devotion to the law.

Sessions said the senators should have given her a box of antacids before the first day of a weeklong confirmation process. Then he added, "She held up well."


Larry Neumeister has covered the federal court house in Manhattan for the 17 years that Sotomayor has been a federal district and appeals court judge there.