From the moment David Souter announced his retirement, his seat on the Supreme Court was Sonia Sotomayor's to lose.
President Obama had been “very interested” in her from the start, said one top adviser, and almost immediately, his political advisers--led by Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel--urged him to make history by tapping the first Hispanic justice.
The selection of Sotomayor, they argued, would energize a key and growing constituency, which could well be disappointed in coming months by expected failures to get meaningful immigration reform.
But there wasn’t unanimity in the ranks. Sources close to the process said legal advisers wanted, as they saw it, a more collegial and intellectual heavyweight. They favored Solicitor General Elena Kagan, the former dean of Harvard Law School, or Chicago based federal appeals court Judge Diane Wood.
And Obama was intrigued by tapping a politician: His head of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, also was added to the short list.
The four went through extensive vetting, filling out detailed questionnaires with intrusive personal and financial questions, covering everything from tax information to social networking sites of their children.
They met for hours with top White House officials and vetters. Vice President Biden interviewed three contenders for about an hour: Kagan last week, and Wood and Sotomayor by phone on Sunday. (He didn’t interview Napolitano, a White House official said, because he knows her from her time at the Justice Department, when he was chair of the Judiciary Committee.)
Obama, the former constitutional law professor, personally interviewed Wood and Kagan on Tuesday, Sotomayor and Napolitano on Thursday.
According to sources close to the process, Obama focused intensely on the law during the hour-long interviews, probing the contenders for their views on the role of a justice and the institutional role of the Court. He was seeking a sense of whether they would take a pragmatic approach, as he believes is appropriate, said one source.
As he weighed the pick over the weekend, the White House already had started looking forward. Eager to have a nominee confirmed before the Senate’s August recess, officials said they took the extraordinary step of asking all four to get started filling out the lengthy Senate questionnaire.
But as the contenders over the weekend worked furiously on the Senate questionnaire, sources close to the process said there was steady and growing momentum for Sotomayor.
There also was a slightly different political argument. Advisers calculated she would be the savviest move for the President to avoid an all-out battle over his Court nominee, according to sources close to the process.
With the president hoping to achieve a crowning accomplishment in his first year with health care reform, advisers pointedly warned against another big fight elsewhere, sources said.
As the first Hispanic nominee, with a compelling life story and rich judicial experience, Sotomayor would be hardest for Republicans to oppose, they argued, and therefore easiest for Obama to get confirmed.
Indeed, some Republican senators, while publicly vowing a fight, privately conceded the difficulties they will face in opposing the first Hispanic nominee.
Those calculations could have given her the edge over Wood, who would be more of a fight, political advisers warned, in light of her paper trail of speeches and appeals court opinions.
Obama’s advisers also were aware of a political reality on the Left, sources said. Sotomayor has the added bonus of placating his base, which has grown increasingly angry over some of Obama’s recent positions on terrorism.
Kagan is considered more moderate on issues of Executive Power. And, as the youngest contender at 49, she could always be in the wings for the next nomination, which the White House Counsel’s office expects to occur in Obama’s first term.
With Sotomayor’s experience and personal story, one top adviser said, “there was no question where the arrow pointed.”
And so, on Monday night, Obama made his calls to the other finalists. He was going a different direction with this nomination.
But a second vacancy could soon be in the cards.