President Barack Obama was careful to stay away from Sonia Sotomayor's swearing-in at the Supreme Court on Saturday, to underscore the independence of the Court. Wednesday morning, though, Obama hosted a festive and emotional reception at the White House to celebrate her ascension to the high court. Savoring a happy event amid generally mixed news on health care reform and other fronts, Obama said Sotomayor's presence on the Court represents "yet another step closer to the more perfect union we all seek." He added, "This is a great day for America."
With Sotomayor standing at his side in the East Room, Obama spoke at length of Sotomayor's only-in-America story of growing up as a poor Latina girl in the Bronx, raised by a single mother, and achieving excellence in academia and in her professional life as a prosecutor, lawyer and judge.
"While this is Justice Sotomayor's achievement -- the result of her ability and determination -- this moment is not just about her," the president said. "It's about every child who will grow up thinking to him or herself, 'if Sonia Sotomayor can make it, then maybe I can, too.' It's about every mother or father who looks at the sacrifices Justice Sotomayor's mother made, and the successes she and her brother have had, and thinks, I may not have much in my own life, but if I work hard enough, maybe my kids can have more."
In his remarks Obama avoided the now-disfavored word "empathy" which even Sotomayor distanced herself from as a guide for judging. But Obama did quote the late Justice William Brennan Jr. who said government officials need to understand the "pulse of life" behind the events they deal with. "With her extraordinary breadth and depth of experience," Obama said, "Justice Sotomayor brings to the Court both a mastery of the letter of the law and an understanding of how the law actually unfolds in our daily lives -- its impact on how we work and worship and raise our families; on whether we have the opportunities we need to live the lives we imagine."
Obama said the Senate, in confirming Sotomayor last week, "looked beyond old divides" and voted for excellence -- Sotomayor's academic credentials and long service on lower federal courts and as a prosecutor. Nodding toward the two justices in the audience -- Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens -- Obama said he was sure they would give Sotomayor "some good tips."
Obama also thanked audience members for their "absolutely critical" help in achieving success in Sotomayor's confirmation bid. He gave a shout-out to the many White House staffers in the room, as well as to Senate Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who also attended.
From our vantage point in the press section at the back of the East Room, we spotted several notables in addition to the official guest list we reported here, including: Solicitor General Elena Kagan and Deputy SGs Neal Katyal and Edwin Kneedler; Nan Aron of Alliance for Justice; Hillary Shelton of the NAACP; Carlos Ortiz, former head of the Hispanic National Bar Association; Vice President Joe Biden's Chief of Staff Ron Klain; and Supreme Court practitioners Tom Goldstein of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, and Mayer Brown's Andrew Pincus.
For her part, Sotomayor made brief remarks of gratitude. "No words can adequately express what I am feeling. No speech can fully capture my joy in this moment," she said after the audience gave her a standing ovation. "It is this nation's faith in a more perfect union that allows a Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx to stand here now."
Thanking Obama as well as her family and friends and those who pushed for her confirmation, Sotomayor also said, "I am deeply humbled by the sacred responsibility of upholding our laws and safeguarding the rights and freedoms set forth in our Constitution. I ask not just my family and friends, but I ask all Americans, to wish me divine guidance and wisdom in administering my new office."
This article first appeared on The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times.