Perry Mason's words 'molded' Sotomayor

ByJoan Biskupic and Kathy Kiely, USA TODAY
July 15, 2009, 10:38 PM

— -- Like Supreme Court nominees before her, Judge Sonia Sotomayor came to her confirmation hearings armed with names of legal greats who inspired her. Wednesday, she invoked Perry Mason.

Sotomayor recalled watching the TV series about the fictional defense attorney as a child and said it inspired her to pursue a career in law. She remembered one of Mason's courtroom rivals telling him, "Justice is served when a guilty man is convicted and when an innocent man is not."

"That TV character said something that molded my life," Sotomayor said. Her more conventional choice of a role model is the late Justice Benjamin Cardozo, whose name she dropped earlier this week.

The Perry Mason reference was one of several moments in which Sotomayor flashed a down-to-earth personality and a grasp of pop culture that has helped charm Democratic and Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee, even as she refused to let them pin her down on abortion and other controversial topics.

On abortion, Sotomayor said she made no promises to anyone about how she'd vote — including President Obama, who nominated her and said as a candidate that he would make "preserving a woman's right to choose under Roe v. Wade a priority."

"I was asked no question by anyone, including the president, about my views on any specific legal issue," Sotomayor said.

Republican senators such as John Cornyn of Texas pressed the nominee on her views of the landmark 1973 case that made abortion legal nationwide. She said only that she would follow court precedent on abortion.

In 17 years as a federal judge, Sotomayor has decided cases only on the fringes of the abortion debate.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., an obstetrician and outspoken abortion opponent, asked whether medical technology that has improved the survival rate for babies born prematurely should alter justices' views about the constitutionality of abortion in the early stages of pregnancy. Sotomayor declined to engage the topic.

Despite her admiration for defense lawyer Perry Mason — a character who, as Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., jokingly noted, won every week — Sotomayor became a prosecutor, a fact that she and her supporters emphasized. If confirmed, she would be the only former local prosecutor on the Supreme Court. From 1979-1984, she worked in the Manhattan district attorney's office that inspired another popular TV legal drama, Law & Order.

Under questioning from Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., another former prosecutor, Sotomayor agreed that a high court decision in June could make it more difficult to introduce routine lab reports on blood, drugs or ballistics. The justices ruled that when prosecutors present forensic reports, the analysts who prepared them must testify to fulfill a defendant's right to be confronted with the witnesses against him.

"I was a former prosecutor. And it's difficult proving cases as it is. Calling more witnesses adds some burdens to the process." Sotomayor said. "But, at the end, that case is a decided case."

Other senators focused on Sotomayor's experience in commercial law. Sotomayor told Sen. Ted Kaufman, D-Del., she left the Manhattan DA's office to get experience in commercial litigation. She told the committee she chose a small firm over a large one so she would not have to be the "fifth guy on the totem pole."

Sotomayor said she parlayed her knowledge of commercial law into volunteer work that included helping people obtain loans for affordable housing.

At another point, she emphasized her commitment to community work. She said that when she speaks to law students and other groups, she stresses "the importance of participation in bettering the conditions in our society. … I tell people that. Just get involved in your communities. … Work on your school boards. Work in your churches. Work in your community to improve it."

Franken, the newest senator, briefly stole the show when Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy's microphone malfunctioned. After offering Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, the use of his, Franken popped into the chairman's seat. "That's the quickest rise of any senator in history," quipped Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.

Day 3: What questions do you have for Judge Sonia Sotomayor? Pose your question in the comments section below.