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07.25.09

My Birthday With Sonia

Watching my husband—Sonia Sotomayor’s former boss—testify for the Supreme Court nominee turned out to be a great way to spend a birthday in Washington.

"No, I'm not going to wear it, it's too flashy," said my husband, Robert Morgenthau, getting ready to go to the Senate judiciary hearings to testify about whether Sonia Sotomayor had the qualifications to be a Supreme Court justice.

"It's not at all flashy," I replied, thinking to myself, come on, you’re a legendary prosecutor and a power broker who never misses a trick.

"Senator, if I may tell you that my grandmother was born in Montgomery, Alabama," Bob said, which produced laughter from the audience and a rather deflated look from Sessions, who said stiffly "I feel better already."

"I'm not wearing both an honorary CIA button and a WWII gold medal," he said, taking them off. When he turned away to put on his tie, I retrieved the tiny medals from his cufflink box and pinned them on his jacket again, something he did not notice until after his testimony.

It happened to be my birthday, and one of the luxuries of our hotel, the inestimable Hay Adams, across from the White House, are concierges who have the savvy of a campaign advance team, and we turned out to be very high maintenance. Eric found my lost backpack and came running upstairs when we had a small emergency. Mark changed our train reservations four times and unearthed a room for Bob's daughter-in-law, Susan Morgenthau, and his grandson, Harry Morgenthau, in the packed hotel. Jack primed his favorite restaurant for my birthday dinner.

The committee had no idea when Bob would be appearing, so we all went for a lunch of fresh crab. Afterwards, Bob proceeded to the Justice Department for meetings, and Susan, Harry and I prowled around the Capitol building waiting for news. At 1:32 p.m. all our cell phones rang at once—Bob needed to be there at 2 p.m. We squeezed into a crowded elevator on our way to the hearing room. When my cell phone rang I fumbled to answer it and accidentally pressed “speaker.” Out came the booming baritone of my son Josh singing Happy Birthday, which was enjoyed by everyone in the elevator.

In the committee room we looked around but didn’t immediately see Bob. I was beginning to panic when Susan spotted him at the back, calmly leafing through his notes as if he’d been there since the janitor opened the building. At the front of the room, blinding spotlights poured over the senators, causing the bald pates of two jolly Democrats to shine like beacons. The Republicans, however, sat with tenebrous expressions that matched the black curtain hiding their legs.

Bob gave Sotomayor, a native of the Bronx who lifted herself out of poverty, her first job as an Assistant District Attorney, and during her testimony she had declared that she owed everything to him. With Bob at the witness table were New York Mayor Bloomberg and Sotomayor's star detractors, the New Haven firefighters who had sued the city for throwing out a promotion test because black firefighters did not do well on it—a ruling approved by a lower court and affirmed by Sotomayor on the appeals court before finally being reversed by the Supreme Court. Led by the chief plaintiff in the case, Frank Ricci, the firefighters were in uniform, whistle-clean, baby-faced, but in no way prepared to be manipulated by the senators.

"What do you think Judge Sotomayor's state of mind was when she voted against you?" one senator asked Ricci. "I don’t know," the young firefighter said helplessly. "I'm not trained in legal things. I just came here to tell my story."

We sat in the front row of the audience, excited to be there. Susan, a community activist, and Harry, a sophomore at Middlebury, sat with hands tightly folded. I was so close I could see the hair curling over my husband's collar, and it made me feel oddly responsible, as though I had to help the pilot fly the plane. What if he had forgotten to turn his cell phone off? I willed him to look up at the senators and abandon his prepared statement.

And then, as if he had read my mind, he raised his eyes to the scowling Republicans to do what he does best, speak contemporaneously. And as he did, I saw on the television monitor that he was smiling! He seldom smiles—after all, he has to announce and then solve the most horrible crimes in the city. He was smiling, I knew, because he was preparing to put certain senators in their places.

For at least 16 hours over four days, the Republicans had subjected Sotomayor to grueling, redundant questions, hoping to trip her up or make her show her temper. They had predicted she would be confirmed, but they first intended to grill her as thought she were on trial for murder. She had stood up brilliantly, deftly bringing loaded questions about her “identity politics” back to her passion for adhering to the rule of law. She was peppy; she wore bright colors; she smiled, knit her brows, nodded her head slowly and swept the table with her hand to make a point. Only on the last day did she come in with deep circles under her eyes. When Senator Patrick Leahy, said he thought the American people had been mightily impressed by her, her chin trembled slightly.

But when Bob remarked wryly, "I'd like to think that all her experience in criminal court as an ADA prepared her well for these judicial hearings," he got no laughs from the committee.

It was particularly ironic that Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, who was rejected for a federal judgeship in 1986 because he was friend of the Klu Klux Klan and an enemy of civil rights, went on an outraged quest to prove that Judge Sotomayer was a racist. He appeared smug and patronizing even to his sympathetic witnesses, the firefighters; he seemed to be proud that he was the quintessential patriot from Alabama, the heart of America.

My husband, a born and bred New York Jew, could not resist having a bit of fun with him. "Senator, if I may tell you that my grandmother was born in Montgomery, Alabama," Bob said, which produced laughter from the audience and a rather deflated look from Sessions, who said stiffly "I feel better already."

The Republicans twisted, squeezed and bounced around like putty the few missteps Obama’s Supreme Court nominee has made: her remarks about being "a wise Latina woman" and her membership in the Puerto Rican Defense Fund, trying to prove with interminable diatribes that they were bellwethers of ethnic bias.

Did she get her job with you because of affirmative action? Bob was asked.

"No," he said. "She was on the Yale Law Journal, graduated summa cum laude, she was meticulously correct, right down the middle, she had judgment, common sense and, most of all, humility."

But did you worry that her objectivity would be compromised when she joined the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund? he was asked.

"No, because I was the one who urged her to join," Bob said, surprising the audience. "I was also one of the founding directors of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund." Yet no one regards Bob as someone who has shown "empathy" to the ethnic lawbreakers he puts away.

"I have also been a lifetime member of the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League," he said. "You have to help people raise themselves up and Judge Sotomayor wanted to help everyone. It was the ‘70s and minorities desperately needed help getting housing and social aid... Some people climb the ladder from disadvantage and pull it up behind them. Sonia not only kept the ladder down, she added a few rungs.”

"Right on, Hoppa," Harry whispered.

The next day, an emotional Sonia called Bob and thanked him for his support.

"It was a no brainer," Bob said. "I just told the truth."

And when he said that, I realized how the senators’ narrow, obsessive questions, their grab for the limelight, had allowed Sotomayor to hide what an extraordinarily complex person she is.

"Nobody realizes how tough she has always been,” Bob said to me. When she was in arraignment court, the judges, who were competing for who could dispose of the most number of cases, browbeat young assistants to take plea bargains no matter whether it was advantageous to the people or not. She just couldn't be bullied."

"But at the same time, she is full of feeling," I was later told by someone who had worked with her at a law firm and could only speak confidentially. "She would come back after a day in court and give hugs to everyone. She is tremendously generous. Taking law clerks out to lunch when she had little savings. She is meticulous about her friends and has an immense following. She went to see a friend in Long Island every day when the friend was dying.”

Peter Kougasian, a bureau chief in the Office of Special Narcotics, went to Princeton and Yale with Sotomayor, and they worked together during her five years at the DA's office.

"At Princeton, she carried herself like a person who was headed for greatness,” he says. “She was deliberate, formal and diplomatic, not loose and spontaneous. Proust said 'some people live their life as though every word uttered was to be published in a book.' Sonia was like that, she had a sense of the weight of her words, as though they had significance.”

Yet she was also involved in third-world politics, talking about America’s role in developing countries and the war in Vietnam. "Part of this was her own heritage," Kougasian says.

"The criticism of her at the office was that she was obsessed with details, a nitpicker, missing the forest sometimes for the trees,” he recalls. “I remember at arraignment court, reading a complaint file she had prepared and I only had about 30 seconds to get the gist of the case. It was a theft from a public bar and her opening paragraph described the denominations of the money stolen—two fives, five twenties and on and on.”

That night, we went to Cityzen, the restaurant started by the chef of The French Laundry in the Napa Valley. The staff all signed a birthday card, presented us with an endless array of amuse bouches, concocted a special chocolate chip cookie dough souffle, and sent me home with a half dozen of pastry chef Amanda Cooke's miniature cupcakes. The Washington Post picked Bob as the best and most consistently entertaining witness of the day, refreshingly devoid of bombast. I had watched my husband, at nearly ninety years of age, display the qualities I had married him for more than 30 years ago. It had been a perfect birthday.

Lucinda Franks is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author who was on the staff of the New York Times and has written for The New Yorker and The New York Times Book Review and Magazine. Her latest book is My Father's Secret War, about her father, who was a spy for the OSS during World War II.