Judge Me by my Life Story. Sonia Woos Panel with Personal Tales of N.Y.Abner S. Greene in Daily News Washington Bureau, July 15, 2009
WASHINGTON - Sonia Sotomayor took a Senate committee on a poignant walk through her New York City life yesterday, from sitting by her dad's side at the old Yankee Stadium to surviving the hell of 9/11. The street-smart Supreme Court nominee served up each personal memory to put a human face on her record through the first day of questioning - a largely gentle probe of her views on the hottest controversies in the law, from guns to abortion.
Even her infamous remark that a "wise Latina" could make better judgments than white men - which she admitted fell flat - was spun into a yarn about motivating young Hispanic women.
"I was trying to inspire them to believe that their life experiences would enrich the legal system, because different life experiences and backgrounds always do," she told the Judiciary Committee.
But, Sotomayor emphasized, "I do not believe that any ethnic, racial or gender group has an advantage in sound judging."
Asked what 9/11 meant to her as a New Yorker and how the 2001 terror attacks changed civilian and military law, her tone was somber but her neutrality as a judge unyielding.
"It was the most horrific experience of my personal life, and the most horrific experience in imagining the pain of families of victims of that tragedy," Sotomayor said, hushing the modest background chatter in the room.
Her apartment in Greenwich Village is 11/2 miles north of Ground Zero, and she grimly recalled, "I spent days not being able to drive a car into my neighborhood because my neighborhood was used as a staging area for emergency trucks."
But all the pain of the catastrophic strikes on U.S. soil did not alter the sanctity of established law, she emphasized:
"The Constitution is a timeless document. It has protected us as a nation. It has inspired our survival. That doesn't change."
Sotomayor - who switched from a royal blue jacket on Monday to bright red yesterday - blew away potential detractors with her charm, laughter and bittersweet memories, including those of her Puerto Rican father, Juan, who died when she was 9.
"She's an impressive woman," Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) told the Daily News. "All you have to do is look at her beautiful mother. She had a great beginning in life."
At one point, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told her the country was trying to figure out whom it's getting on the high court.
The answer was a daughter of the Bronx sharing fond memories of a childhood "in the shadow of Yankee Stadium."
"I grew up sitting next to my dad while he was alive, watching baseball," Sotomayor, 55, told Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Schumer also mistakenly called her "Judge Scalia" - the Supreme Court justice from Queens - and Sotomayor confused Washington's Nationals for the old Senators team.
But it was the rare gaffe in a day in which only Graham tried - unsuccessfully - to get under her skin by asking Sotomayor to respond to anonymous critics among trial lawyers who call her a difficult bully on the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
There was no apology. "I ask the hard questions, but I do it evenly for both sides," she said.
A striking moment came when Sotomayor showed her independence by rejecting President Obama's view that some rulings come from "a judge's heart."
"It's not the heart that compels conclusions in cases, it's the law," she answered.
"She's handled herself well," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) told reporters. Surprisingly from a leading critic, he said her record as a judge "indicates a fairly traditional approach."
"Her demeanor and temperament seems to put people at ease" - Carl Tobias, University of Richmond Law School
"It's clear that Sotomayor's ability to not answer questions is stronger than the politicians' ability to ask new, creative ones" - CBS legal analyst Andrew Cohen.
"I think she's doing beautifully" - Abner Greene, Fordham Law School