Anatomy Of The (Unsuccessful) Sotomayor Whisper Campaign

May 26, 2009 6:11 a.m.

By nominating Sonia Sotomayor to serve on the Supreme Court, President Obama is not just making a bid for history. He’s also bucking the will of several anonymous lawyers and law clerks who tried to run her off the road after it became clear that she was on his short list.

The anatomy of the Sotomayor whisper campaign is pretty straightforward. Once it was obvious that she was a serious contender, an unknown number of Second Circuit prosecutors and former clerks banded together and approached The New Republic‘s legal correspondent Jeffrey Rosen with attacks on the prospective nominee’s fitness.

The sources told Rosen, among other things, that Sotomayor lacked the intellectual heft and good manners to serve on the court, and, in an article billed as the first in a series analyses of potential nominees, Rosen went with it.

From there, the attacks went viral.Conservatives echoed the anonymous complaints (National Review‘s Mark Hemingway called the summa cum laude Princeton graduate and Yale Law Journal editor “dumb and obnoxious”) and beltway journalists cited them as evidence that her Supreme Court fate was suddenly in jeopardy.

Rosen soon returned to the website of The New Republic–this time on their blog–to defend all aspects of his original article (with the exception of its breathless headline: “The Case Against Sotomayor” which he blamed on the magazine’s editorial staff).

But in that very post, he changed his tone dramatically, writing, “Sotomayor is an able candidate–at least as able as some of the current Supreme Court justices–and if Obama is convinced she is the best candidate on his short list, he should pick her.”

That finding stood in stark contrast to the conclusion he reached in his original article: “Given the stakes,” Rosen wrote, “the president should obviously satisfy himself that he has a complete picture before taking a gamble.”

But by then the meme couldn’t be contained. It resurfaced less than a week later in two Washington Post articles and has colored today’s coverage of the nomination, and of all cable news coverage of the SCOTUS stakes for the past month.

As for Rosen’s series of analyses, he ultimately wrote only one additional article–a flattering piece about the qualifications of Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Diane Wood, in which he praised her “ability to get along with people with different points of view.”

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