Watching Sotomayor

How Day One coverage of the Supreme Court pick fared

With the announcement that President Obama has nominated federal appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court to replace outbound justice David Souter, the press now has the task of covering both the political and judicial aspects of her nomination: parsing the historic aspect of the Sotomayor pick and how it will fare in the political arena, but also discussing her prospective abilities as a Supreme Court justice based on an analysis of her previous rulings and opinions. While it’s too early to characterize the coverage as even-handed on the one hand or overly sensationalist on the other, it’s not too early to see how first-day coverage fared.

Unsurprisingly, today’s reports mostly celebrate the historic nature of the nomination, with Sotomayor’s life story taking overwhelming precedence. The Los Angeles Times headlines its story, “Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor rose from humble roots.” The New York Times opens with those roots as well, writing that Obama chose “a daughter of Puerto Rican parents raised in a Bronx public housing project to become the nation’s first Hispanic justice.” Similarly, in its lede, USA Today states that her confirmation would give the court “for the first time in nearly two decades, the experience of an individual from a truly humble background.”

The Washington Post uses Obama’s words to say the same thing, noting high up that the president “has said jurists’ life experiences are a key part of their legal makeup, and he cited Sotomayor’s compelling personal story as one of the motivations for his choice.” And the Boston Globe leads with the comment that Obama “made history this morning” with the nomination, echoing commentators’ talk that this was a moment equivalent in significance to Obama’s own historic nomination. The ledes show that historic milestones still easily beat all for top billing.

Other accounts run afoul in attempts to delineate the significance of the moment. The Associated Press’s report, for instance, includes the following quite odd sentence:

The White House announcement ceremony was a picture of diversity, the first black president, appointing the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, joined by Vice President Joe Biden, who is white.

The nod at diversity is foiled by some mighty awkward execution and the almost unforgivable cliché, “picture of diversity.” Let’s not repeat that one.

On the Senate-watchers front, speculation is already ramping up for how the confirmation votes will fall. At, Nate Silver looks at the roll call list from 1998, when Sotomayor was confirmed to her current position on the 2nd Circuit (the overall vote was 67-29). Silver notes that of those senators who are still seated today, “Sotomayor’s margin of confirmation was a bit more comfortable: 35-11.” David Waldman at DailyKos follows suit, looking at how the Gang of Fourteen voted in 1998. Silver hypothesizes that Obama “may be trying to carefully calibrate the amount of Republican resistance” so that “there’s a chance that they’ll do something that makes them look silly, but not enough for them to seriously threaten Sotomayor’s nomination with a filibuster.”

Looking ahead, Ezra Klein, at his new WaPo perch, hopes that coverage to come will include more thorough analyses of Sotomayor’s general approach to the issues that are most likely to occupy her time if she is confirmed. Here’s Klein:

And though liberals and conservatives alike are going to make sure they have a very clear idea of Sotomayor’s stance on hot-button cultural issues, there will be rather less attention — and so less certainty — on her approach towards regulation, federal authority, and corporate power. But those issues may take the bulk of her time in the coming years, and be the most consequential questions for the legacy of the administration that’s nominating her.

As coverage of Sotomayor’s track record gets more sophisticated in the coming days, Klein’s is level-headed advice that reporters should keep in mind.

It’s particularly good advice considering an MSNBC segment that already queries whether Republicans are wont to take up Rush Limbaugh’s charge that Sotomayor is a “reverse racist”—a label that likely refers to a controversial ruling of Sotomayor’s that invalidated the results of a firefighters’ exam in New Haven. Sensationalism? I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Politico, meanwhile, already has an “ideas” piece that hurries to take up the question underlying the MSNBC segment, which is perhaps shaping up to be the political stumper du jour. In Gebe Martinez’s words, Republicans “must figure out how to legitimately question Sotomayor’s judicial temperament without looking like they are attacking her on the basis of her gender and ethnic background,” a quandary “the White House, Democrats and Latino leaders are relishing as they all but dare Republicans to oppose the first ever Hispanic appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.” Here’s hoping that coverage of political maneuvering around the diversity angle doesn’t trip over itself in an attempt to jump on the sensationalist bandwagon.

Finally, if anyone worried that hyperbole wouldn’t be a part of day one’s reactions, The Nation comes to the rescue with the headline: “Obama Pick Sonia Sotomayor Reflects America.”

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.