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Axelrod Sheds Light on Obama’s Supreme Court Nominating Process

May 26, 2009 at 6:15 PM EDT
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White House Senior Advisor David Axelrod describes the interview process that led President Obama to chose federal appeals judge Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court, and why the president is confident that she is the best person for the job.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: White House senior adviser David Axelrod joins me now from the press briefing room to discuss the president’s court pick.

David Axelrod, walk us through the president’s decision-making process. How did Judge Sotomayor come to the president’s attention? What was the winnowing process like?

DAVID AXELROD, Senior Adviser to President Obama: Well, first of all, the president started with some principles that he’s held for a long time. As you know, he spent much of his life studying the court, thinking about the court.

And he had some very strong ideas about what he wanted in a justice. He wanted somebody who had excellence in the law, broad experience in the law. He wanted someone who shared his views on judging and how a judge should deal with cases and process cases and what the appropriate role of a judge is.

And he wanted someone who brought some real-life experience to the court, someone who understood what it was like to struggle, someone who understood the way the law impacts on people in their daily lives.

And when you applied those three standards, Judge Sotomayor came to the forefront quickly, although there were many other good — more than good, stellar candidates he considered. And in the last week, he’s held a series of interviews. He’s mulled this over, prayed over it.

This weekend, he spent quite a bit of time reflecting on it. And then last night at about 8 o’clock, he made the decision.

Final candidates all female

David Axelrod
Senior Adviser to President Obama
I think the president thought that it's important that there be more women on the court. He didn't exclusively consider women, but I think he felt that was important. So the final four that he interviewed all were women.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, how many times has he met with her? And for how long have they talked?

DAVID AXELROD: He met with her on Thursday night. He met for a little over an hour. But he had a great deal of material about her. He had read through many of her opinions. He had quite a bit of material that was given to him by his staff.

So he was very familiar with her record by the time that they met. And then they had a discussion that he described to me as a pretty dense discussion about very arcane points of the law.

As you know, the president is well versed in the Constitution, constitutional law, and that's where the discussion really centered.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you know what parts of the law they discussed?

DAVID AXELROD: I don't. I wasn't -- this was a one-on-one meeting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All the finalists were reported to be women. Did the president set out to choose a woman?

DAVID AXELROD: I think the president thought that it's important that there be more women on the court. He didn't exclusively consider women, but I think he felt that was important. So the final four that he interviewed all were women.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This would also be, if she's confirmed, of course, the first Hispanic justice. Did he set out to make history by choosing an Hispanic?

DAVID AXELROD: I think, first of all, he set out to fulfill the three principles that I laid out earlier. And Judge Sotomayor has just a spectacular story. You know, I think no one in our memory has had the credentials that she brings to the court.

She's been a big-city prosecutor. She's been a corporate litigator, a Federal District Court judge, a trial judge, and, for the last 11 years, an Appeals Court judge. She has more experience on the bench than anybody in 100 years.

So that was an appeal, but she also has a great personal story. Raised in the South Bronx, her father died when she was young. Her mother was a nurse, raised her.

So those were -- the fact that she also will be the first Hispanic is a positive thing. It's a benefit, but part of the entire mix that attracted him to her.

Examining nominee's record

David Axelrod
Senior Adviser to President Obama
She hasn't been a legislator on the bench. And I think anybody who hopes to make that case is going to be very disappointed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some conservatives, as you know, David Axelrod, are already weighing in. Some of them are citing a statement she made in, I guess, 2005 where she said Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal are, quote, "where policy is made." How is that going to be explained?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, I think it doesn't need to be explained if anybody reads her broader comments from that event at Duke. She was talking to a group of young aspiring lawyers, lawyers who were thinking about being law clerks in the District Court or the Appeals Court. And she was explaining the difference between the District Court and the Appeals Court.

And what she said was the Appeals Court is where legal theory, essentially, where these more involved constitutional issues go, whereas the trial court, where she also served, was mostly about evidence. And she corrected herself right away. She was very clear about the context in which she offered that comment.

The most important thing, Judy, is there are 17 years on the bench that people can look at. And I think, when they do, I think they'll conclude that she's been very faithful to the law. She hasn't been a legislator on the bench. And I think anybody who hopes to make that case is going to be very disappointed.

The abortion issue

David Axelrod
Senior Adviser to President Obama
And hers certainly is the great American story. And one hopes that she brings the wisdom accumulated through all of those experiences to the bench.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The constitutional issue of privacy, the question of abortion is sure to come up in the Senate hearings. Does the president know her position on abortion?

DAVID AXELROD: I don't believe the president discussed that with her in his interview.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So was that part of the vetting process in any way?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, you know, she's ruled on a few cases where, as is her habit, she followed the judicial precedents in ruling. But the president did not zero in on any one particular issue with her so much as her general philosophy of how she views the law, how she views judging cases, how she would respond to precedent, and how she would -- how her own personal experience has informed the way she approaches the law.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There was another comment that I'm already reading conservatives pointing to. Quote, she said, I guess, in 2002, "A wise Latina woman with a richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life when each is acting as a judge."

DAVID AXELROD: Well, I think what she's saying is that you are -- that you bring to the court not just your legal experience, which in her case is vast, but your personal experience and your life experience. And hers certainly is the great American story. And one hopes that she brings the wisdom accumulated through all of those experiences to the bench.

Sotomayor's confirmation hearing

JUDY WOODRUFF: I saw today that Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, long-time member of the Judiciary Committee, said that typically in the last few justices up for confirmation, Justice Roberts, Justice Alito, it took 90 days before those confirmation votes took place. The president has said he wants this done sooner than that. How are you going to persuade the Republican senators otherwise?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, first of all -- and I have great respect for Sen. Hatch, but I think that the Alito and Roberts nominations took 72 and 70 days. Justice Ginsburg was nominated on June 14th and was confirmed before Congress went out on their summer break in August.

So there's a great deal of history that suggests that the Senate can get this done and get it done before the break. And the president wants this so that Justice Sotomayor can join the court in September as they decide what cases they're going to take next year.

One of the reasons -- he's been very deliberative in this process, but he's also tried to expedite it to give the Senate adequate time to get this done before the break. And we certainly hope they do that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we're going to leave it there. David Axelrod, senior adviser to President Obama, thank you.

DAVID AXELROD: Judy, good to be with you.