WASHINGTON — She greeted him in Spanish. He handed her a copy of his book. They chuckled over some recent mishaps.
Conservatives hoping Republicans in the Senate will block Sonia Sotomayor's ascension to the U.S. Supreme Court best not look to the senator from Florida: After a 30-minute meeting with Sotomayor on Tuesday, a "delighted" Sen. Mel Martinez pronounced her smart, likable and prudent.
"I think she's a very, very bright person, very, very much someone who the Supreme Court will find will fit in very well," said Martinez, a Republican from Orlando.
He said he will withhold judgment about whether she deserves a lifetime appointment to the court until her Senate confirmation hearings this summer, "but I should say I am very, very impressed with her, not only her personal qualities, but her understanding of the role of the judiciary, and the role of a judge."
Two weeks ago, President Barack Obama tapped Sotomayor, an appeals court judge in New York, as his choice to replace retiring Justice David Souter. Now she's meeting with Senate leaders, Judiciary Committee members and Republicans whom the White House sees as potential allies in the confirmation battle ahead — like Martinez.
He is the only Hispanic Republican in the Senate. If confirmed, she would be the Supreme Court's first Hispanic justice, and only its third woman. Her confirmation hearings are scheduled to begin July 13.
Martinez and Sotomayor both come from humble beginnings. He was a refugee from Cuba after the Communist revolution. She was the daughter of poor Puerto Ricans; her mother worked two jobs after her father died.
The focus on Sotomayor's ethnicity and life story, coupled with Obama's stated desire to choose judges with "empathy," has sparked concern among conservatives that Sotomayor is more interested in interpreting the law as she thinks it should be, rather than as it is.
Yet Martinez was more interested in defending her Tuesday than in joining some of his Republican colleagues — and a swarm of conservative commentators and activists — in blasting her past remarks and rulings as evidence of "reverse racism."
When asked about Sotomayor's 2001 statement that she hoped a Latina would make a wiser decision than a white male without the same experiences, Martinez said he understood her point.
"The richness of her experience informs who she is — it informs who I am," he said. "I think the question really is, will she rule as a Latin woman, or will she rule as a judge based on precedence, based on the law, and obviously the facts before the court.
"Based on my conversation with her today I think she was using that as rhetoric, but I don't think that is how she rationalizes in her opinions. So far, from the review of the opinions that I have heard of, this does not seem to be an element of how she rules."
The two exchanged pleasantries in Spanish when they met. He gave her a copy of his book, A Sense of Belonging, which he signed for her mother, Celina, who lives in South Florida.
And his first question for the judge? "What happened to your foot?" Martinez said.
Sotomayor fractured her right ankle Monday while racing to catch a plane at New York's LaGuardia Airport. Her lower leg is encased in a cast. Martinez injured a tendon in his right hand while riding dirt bikes over the weekend. His middle finger is wrapped in a splint.
He laughed. "Empathy," he said.
Wes Allison can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 463-0577.