Sotomayor adds celebrity to court

WASHINGTON (AP) - November 17, 2009

Since becoming the first Hispanic justice, Sotomayor has mamboed with movie stars, exchanged smooches with musicians at the White House and thrown out the first pitch for her beloved New York Yankees. A famous jazz composer even wrote a song about her: "Wise Latina Woman."

In short, Sotomayor has become a celebrity - all without having made a single major decision at the nation's highest court.

It's not that other justices don't have their own particular glamour.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia - both opera lovers - recently had roles in the opening performance of "Ariadne auf Naxos" for the Washington National Opera. Other justices have done tours to promote their books.

But that kind of fame rarely reaches the man on the street.

Few Americans can name most of the justices. "Many, many, many more Americans can name the Seven Dwarfs than they can the people on the Supreme Court," said Bob Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.

No so for Sotomayor.

Autograph seekers, picture takers and well-wishers hound her wherever she goes, months after her confirmation hearing, swearing-in and first appearance in the courtroom.

Recently, the new justice was swarmed by people with cameras the minute she appeared in the Grand Foyer of the White House during a celebration of Latino music.

The throng around her didn't part until the hundreds of concert guests were ushered to their seats in a giant tent on the South Lawn, and it quickly regrouped once the concert ended. Some of those lucky enough to get photos with the justice squealed and proudly displayed their happy-snaps for others in the crowd.

At that event, only Sotomayor got a standing ovation when President Barack Obama read a list of famous Hispanics from government, music and acting who were present, including George Lopez, Jimmy Smits, Los Lobos, Sheila E. and Eva Longoria Parker. Parker later pulled Sotomayor on stage with all the musicians and the first family as everyone hugged and exchanged smooches during the finale.

Hollywood and the world of music are also paying attention to her. One of the most popular YouTube clips of Sotomayor is her confidently mamboing - in heels! - with "La Bamba" actor Esai Morales at a National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts just weeks after she was confirmed.

The song Sotomayor and Morales were dancing to? Bobby Sanabria's "Sotomayor Mambo."

And that's not the only song dedicated to her. Grammy award-winning jazzman Arturo O'Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra this month debuted "Wise Latina Woman," penned by O'Farrill and commissioned by The Bronx Museum of the Arts and Symphony Space in honor of Sotomayor.

The title references one of Sotomayor's most famous statements: "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." That remark was criticized over and over by her detractors during her confirmation hearing. Since then it has been adopted by her fans as a slogan. Now it even shows up on T-shirts and other memorabilia.

It's not as if Sotomayor is pushing this public recognition.

In fact, apart from a C-SPAN program that interviewed all the justices, she is refusing television, magazine and newspaper interview requests, including a request for comment from The Associated Press for this story. Sotomayor even nixed plans by famed photographer Annie Liebowitz to shoot her for a photo spread in Vogue magazine.

She did allow Latina magazine to photograph her inside the Supreme Court building, but wouldn't submit to a formal interview even though a friend wrote the accompanying article. Wearing her black robe, the justice appeared on the cover of the latest issue prominently displaying her bright red fingernails, which White House aides had persuaded her to repolish in a demure neutral shade last July for her Senate confirmation hearing.

Even though she's avoided interviews, people recognize her everywhere. "There are people who can identify her in a line of pictures who couldn't identify some of the people who are big movie stars," Thompson said.

Part of the adulation stems from the historic nature of her appointment: the first Hispanic on the court, and only the third female, after retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and current Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

"She is the first Latino, Latina to sit on the Supreme Court and that's powerful. She's a powerful role model," said Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "She will have an effect on Latino children akin to the effect that the election of the first African-American president has had and will have on African American childcare and that's encouraging. And for all of that she deservedly gets treated like a rock star."

O'Connor got her share of celebrity treatment when she became the court's first female justice in 1981.

"If there was a state dinner, an exclusive theater opening, even a new panda at the National Zoo, O'Connor was there," author and reporter Joan Biskupic said in her biography of O'Connor.

But O'Connor was appointed before the 24-hour news cycle and YouTube, where video of anything can show up anytime. A recent search of YouTube for Sotomayor brought up more than 2,000 videos, double the amount for any other sitting justice.

That kind of attention will make it difficult for Sotomayor to fade into the background, like her colleagues.

"I'm almost never recognized, which is nice. I just do the shopping and so forth and nobody knows who it is," Justice John Paul Stevens, the court's senior justice who has been on the court since 1975, said in an interview with C-SPAN.

Sotomayor is also only the third nonwhite justice. The late Thurgood Marshall joined the court in 1967, the court's first African-American justice and first nonwhite. Justice Clarence Thomas, who replaced Marshall, still serves on the court with Sotomayor.

Times were much different when Marshall arrived. The justice would tell stories of being mistaken for an elevator operator inside the Supreme Court, recalled one of his former clerks, Mark Tushnet.

These days, Thomas says he's recognized as a justice wherever he goes. "It's easier to recognize ... to pick one person out who's different," Thomas told C-SPAN.

Thompson, the Syracuse professor, said it could be a good thing for Sotomayor's fame to linger if it draws attention away from reality television stars and the like and toward the court.

Supreme Court justices "should be the celebrities," Thompson said. "Given the nature of our governmental system, these are the people that every citizen should know. These are important people."

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