NYT Finds Plenty of "Conservatives" in Sotomayor Fight, Never Calls Her Liberal

As close as reporters Peter Baker and Jeff Zeleny got to admitting the obvious: "If confirmed to succeed Justice David H. Souter, a mainstay of the liberal wing who is retiring, Judge Sotomayor would probably not change the court's broad philosophical balance."

Wednesday's paper led with Obama's choice of Sonia Sotomayor as his Supreme Court nominee - "Obama Chooses Hispanic Judge for Supreme Court Seat," by Peter Baker and Jeff Zeleny.

Baker and Zeleny never directly acknowledged Sotomayor's liberal outlook, although there is enough in her judicial record (and her own words) to indicate her ideology.

President Obama announced Tuesday that he would nominate Sonia Sotomayor, a federal appeals judge in New York, to the Supreme Court, choosing a daughter of Puerto Rican parents who was raised in a Bronx public housing project to become the nation's first Hispanic justice.

In making his first pick for the court, Mr. Obama emphasized Judge Sotomayor's "extraordinary journey" from modest beginnings to the Ivy League and now the pinnacle of the judicial system. Casting her as the embodiment of the American dream, he touched off a confirmation battle that he hopes to wage over biography more than ideology.

Judge Sotomayor's past comments about how her sex and ethnicity shaped her decisions, and the role of appeals courts in making policy, generated instant conservative complaints that she is a judicial activist. Senate Republicans vowed to scrutinize her record. But with Democrats in reach of the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster, the White House appeared eager to dare Republicans to stand against a history-making nomination at a time when both parties are courting the growing Hispanic vote.

Again, the Times hinted at but didn't directly label Sotomayor with the still-damaging label of "liberal," never using the term to describe her.

If confirmed to succeed Justice David H. Souter, a mainstay of the liberal wing who is retiring, Judge Sotomayor would probably not change the court's broad philosophical balance. But her views on same-sex marriage, gun rights, financial and environmental regulation, executive power and other polarizing issues could help shape judicial rulings for years, if not decades, to come.

At the heart of the fight over her nomination will be a debate over the role that a judge's experience should play in rendering decisions. Although Mr. Obama said on Tuesday that "a judge's job is to interpret, not make law," his emphasis on a nominee with "empathy" has generated criticism from Republicans, who saw that as code for legislating personal views from the bench.

Judge Sotomayor has said that "our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions." In a lecture in 2001 on the role her background played in her jurisprudence, she said, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

After sashaying around the "liberal" label, the Times found plenty of "conservative" activists complaining about Sotomayor, using the label four times to describe Sotomayor's opposition.

"Judge Sotomayor is a liberal activist of the first order who thinks her own personal political agenda is more important than the law as written," said Wendy E. Long, counsel to the Judicial Confirmation Network, a conservative group. "She thinks that judges should dictate policy and that one's sex, race and ethnicity ought to affect the decisions one renders from the bench."

Other conservatives said they would focus on her ruling in a New Haven affirmative action case or on how she might rule on same-sex marriage. "Abortion is in some sense a stale issue that has been fought over many times, but gay marriage is very much up for grabs," said Curt Levey, executive director of the Committee for Justice, a legal group. "Gay marriage will be bigger than abortion."

As she was nominated on Tuesday, Judge Sotomayor did not retreat from her view that judges ought to look at the impact of their rulings. "I strive never to forget the real-world consequences of my decisions on individuals, businesses and government," she said.

While conservative groups took aim, Republican senators responded more cautiously, weighing how aggressively they want to fight her confirmation. Twenty-nine Senate Republicans voted against her confirmation to the appellate bench in 1998, including Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, now the party's Senate leader, while 25 voted for her. Of those still in the Senate, 11 voted against her and 9 for her.

Compare the lack of "liberal" labels to how the Times reacted when George W. Bush nominated Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. The lead story from November 1, 2005 by Elisabeth Bumiller and Carl Hulse called Bush's nominee conservative (at least on abortion) in the very first sentence and kept going.

President Bush on Monday named Samuel A. Alito Jr., an Ivy League-educated federal appeals court judge with a conservative record on abortion and a history of prosecuting organized crime in New Jersey, to succeed Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court....Legal scholars call Judge Alito's jurisprudence respectful of precedent and solidly conservative, not only on abortion but on other issues like the death penalty and the separation of church and state....When the death of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist created a second opening on the court, Mr. Bush was determined to name a woman, and ended up with Ms. Miers. Having tried that and failed, Republicans said, Mr. Bush felt less pressure to select a woman and turned then to Judge Alito, who had bona fide conservative credentials but also an easygoing personality that would wear well in confirmation hearings.