Washington — Sonia Sotomayor kept her cool Tuesday, even when she was being portrayed at her Supreme Court confirmation hearing as just the opposite — a hotheaded judge who is sometimes mean to lawyers who appear before her.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., raised the subject, citing anonymous comments in the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary from lawyers who called Sotomayor “a terror on the bench” and said she is “temperamental and excitable,” abuses lawyers and makes inappropriate outbursts.
Graham acknowledged there were also favorable anonymous comments about the 12-year appeals court veteran, but he didn’t repeat them: descriptions of her as “frighteningly smart” with a “very good commonsense approach to the law” and “extremely hard working and always prepared.”
Sotomayor said the anonymous comments may be due to her tendency to “ask some questions at oral argument.” She called the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan a “hot bench.”
“It means they’re peppered with questions,” she said, explaining that some lawyers find the process of undergoing unpredictable and sometimes contentious questioning “difficult and challenging.”
Graham cut her off.
“If I may interject, they find you difficult and challenging,” he said, interrupting her in much the same style she sometimes questions lawyers arguing a case.
“Do you think you have a temperament problem?” Graham demanded.
“I can only talk about what I know of my relationship with the judges of my court and the lawyers who appear regularly in my circuit. I ask the tough questions, but I do it evenly for both sides,” she said.
Graham wasn’t finished.
“These statements about you are striking. They’re not about your colleagues,” he said. “This is pretty tough stuff that you don’t see about other judges on the 2nd Circuit.”
Other senators took Sotomayor’s side. “I like a hot bench. I like hard questions,” said Sen. Sheldoon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a former U.S. attorney. “A dead bench of people who are just looking back at you like a bunch of toadstools in a row is no value to the practitioner.”
Sotomayor has a reputation in the courthouse where she has worked for 17 years as a judge who studies each case thoroughly and is more aggressive in her questioning than some of the other dozen judges on the circuit.
She’s persistent but doesn’t express anger in a courthouse where several judges have shouted down lawyers and where one once angrily tossed a stack of papers submitted by lawyers on his desk to demonstrate his disgust with the volume of them.
Her voice in the courtroom is similar to what the senators have seen at her confirmation hearing, where she appears intense at times but also smiles frequently and is generally good-natured.
Fellow 2nd Circuit Judge Guido Calabresi, a former Yale Law School dean who taught Sotomayor when she was a student there, said earlier this year that Sotomayor “questions fiercely.”
“Good lawyers love it when you say, ‘Here’s my problem, now answer it,’” Calabresi said. “A bad lawyer goes into a panic.”