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Page last updated at 13:59 GMT, Thursday, 28 May 2009 14:59 UK

Washington diary: Justice Sotomayor?

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

In America the appointment of a Supreme Court judge is front page news.

Sonia Sotomayor and Barack Obama
Ms Sotomayor is likely to face a smooth ride onto the court

Presidents serve for eight years at most. The nine justices serve for life, should they wish to.

By placing someone on the bench, a commander-in-chief can try to make his influence felt well beyond his time in office.

It is an imprecise science. Justices do not always vote the way the presidents or the public expect them to.

Ruffling feathers?

One thing seems certain. Judge Sonia Sotomayor, the daughter of Puerto Rican migrants reflects the demographic reality of America on the high court just as Barack Obama does in the White House.

When the two of them met in private for the first time they got along famously.

They certainly have a lot in common. Both were raised by a single mother, both overcame the limitations of their humble origins with hard work on the coalface of academia, both became stars in law school, both embarked on lives of public service and both appear to be supremely confident and comfortable in their own skin.

If confirmed, Sonia Sotomayor will only be the third woman ever to sit on the Supreme Court. But unlike Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the retired Sandra Day O'Connor, this outspoken daughter of the Bronx could ruffle some feathers.

Matt Frei in the BBC World News America studio
The nine justices on the Supreme Court wield real power in a country in which Congress has been incapable of tackling many of the most contentious issues.

Conservative activists have vowed to fight her nomination. Some have celebrated it as the much needed jolt that will unite and re-energise the fractious and fractured conservative movement.

Controversial radio host Rush Limbaugh has described Ms Sotomayor as a "reverse racist".

But how many Republican senators with significant numbers of Hispanic voters in their states will oppose her passage to the court? Hispanics are now the biggest minority in the US - and still growing.

Politicians ignore or upset them at their peril - just ask the GOP.

Lawyers may be loathed or ridiculed in America but the law is revered and nothing illustrates this more than a visit to the Supreme Court.

Its august building looks like a reconstruction of the Acropolis, with its giant doors flanked by huge columns. On a sunny day the white marble is blindingly bright.

'Sacred temple'

Walking up its steps and through its portals is a far more humbling experience than entering the White House or paying a visit to Capitol Hill.

The nine justices on the Supreme Court wield real power in a country in which Congress has been incapable of tackling many of the most contentious issues.

The Supreme Court creates legal precedents with the same power to change lives as congressional legislation.

The right to have an abortion in the United States is not enshrined in a law passed by Congress. It is based on the 1973 case of Roe v Wade.

The desegregation of education, allowing black people to enter schools that were once white-only, famously stems from the landmark case of Brown v Board of Education.

US Supreme Court building
The Supreme Court is housed in a suitably grand building

Walking up the marble staircase of America's highest court is like entering a sacred temple, harbouring a precious icon. Barely a murmur disturbs the marble halls.

The only noise that echoes here is reverential silence. Even visiting schoolchildren are reduced to an awestruck hush.

The security is as stringent as anything at the White House. All mobile phones, bags and coats are confiscated. There is the inevitable metal detector, your name has to be on a visitors list and you cannot even have a pee without being escorted by one of the presiding marshals.

The chamber has the feel of a grand theatre. Heavy red velvet curtains hang down from the frescoed ceiling behind a phalanx of double columns.

The visitors' seating is cramped. Instead of looking down at a stage you look up at a High Table, behind which you see nine empty chairs, one for each justice.

The audience is separated from the legal staff and the bench by a wide passage-way, patrolled by federal security agents with earpieces.

'Extraordinary pageant'

The justices are the druids that interpret and protect America's sacred Constitution. They are custodians of the Idea.

Supreme Court justices - along with other federal judges - are the only senior public officials who serve for life.

Their setting, their demeanour and their job description ooze finality.

These judges do not wear wigs and embroidered cloaks. The simplicity merely adds to the gravitas.

On cue the judges, whose average age is 76, walk in with the precision timing of a Broadway chorus line

You do not hear the sound of gavel on wood. But the theatre that has been created around the Supreme Court is far more serious and self-conscious than anything that London's Old Bailey has to offer.

Everyone needs to be seated ten minutes before the first hearing, which usually starts at 1000.

The lawyers are usually allowed to mill around for a little longer, exchanging pleasantries or barbed greetings like gladiators before a fight.

In the minutes leading up to 1000, marshals scuttle in and out from behind the red curtain, placing papers, cups of tea or bottles of water in front of the judges' chairs. Everything is made perfect for the grand entry.

At 1000 sharp, an electronic whistle like a dog's yelp blows and the red curtain behind the bench swings open. On cue the judges, whose average age is 76, walk in with the precision timing of a Broadway chorus line: four from each wing and the chief justice through the middle. You half expect them to break into song.

Instead, they take their seats and then with a surprising minimum of fuss and decorum they begin the business of administering justice.

Barring the "unknown unknown" of a bombshell disclosure, Sonia Sotomayor - who grew up in public housing and whose father never went past third grade - will soon play her part in this extraordinary legal pageant that goes to the very root of America.

It will be fun to watch.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America which airs every weekday on BBC News, BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).

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