07/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sotomayor Champion D'Amato Goes Silent On Supreme Court Nomination

Several weeks after Supreme Court Justice David Souter announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, former Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato wrote an op-ed endorsing a bipartisan approach to filling the vacancy. The template, he wrote, should be the collaborative work he and fellow New Yorker Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat, took towards picking federally appointed judges -- including Sonia Sotomayor.

"The nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, a federal district court judge whom Moynihan and I jointly recommended to the first President Bush in 1992, is just one example of our bipartisan agreement," he wrote in the May 21 edition of the Herald Community Newspapers of Long Island. "Sotomayor is also being floated as a possible replacement for Souter. Moynihan would be proud."

Five days later, Sotomayor would indeed be nominated by Obama to take Souter's position on the Court. Since then, however, D'Amato has gone nearly radio silent, commenting rarely about the candidate he helped shepherd to the District Court and Court of Appeals.

Asked repeatedly to discuss the nomination and or email a statement, D'Amato's office referred the Huffington Post to the May 21 op-ed and said the former senator was just too busy.

"We're going to take a pass," said his aide, Dana Weisberg. "Too much going on in NY this week. Thank you for your patience."

As Sotomayor's nomination weaves its way through the early stages of confirmation, the likelihood of her ending up on the Court remains strong. The partisan breakdown in Congress is heavily tilted in her favor. The possibility of a filibuster seems remote. And yet, noticeably absent from Sotomayor's corner has been a big-name GOP defender. Usually, a member of the opposition party from the same state as a nominee will play that role (think of Sen. Sam Brownback championing then Governor Kathleen Sebelius' nomination as Secretary of Health and Human Services). There are few, if any, New York Republicans with that type of strong national profile. Except D'Amato.

A hard-line conservative, D'Amato has already played an important role in advancing Sotomayor's judicial career. He and Moynihan shared an arrangement through which they would consult on all appointments of federal district court judges. Usually this meant allowing whoever was in the opposition party to the sitting president to appoint one of four vacancies. In 1991, with George H.W. Bush as president, that one of four pick was Sotomayor.

"This was a very unusual arrangement started that allowed for a bipartisan approach to selecting candidates," D'Amato wrote in that May 21 op-ed. "It is a shame it isn't used more today."

Noting that it was a pre-existing arrangement that led to Sotomayor's nomination to the District Court seat, several conservative activists today have insisted that D'Amato's support was more perfunctory than personal. But six years later, when Sotomayor was up for a spot on the Court of Appeals, the long-serving Republican was effusive with praise.

"Judge Sotomayor's experience as prosecutor, civil litigator and federal district court judge makes her an exceptionally qualified candidate for the Second Circuit," D'Amato said at her '97 hearing. "Her extensive knowledge of the law and her experience deciding federal cases prepares her for the complex legal decisions that must be made by Circuit Court judges."

"As it relates to Justice Sotomayor, what can one say?" he added later. "But only in this country, the daughter of a humble working family has risen by way of her legal scholastic stewardship to the highest trial court in the federal district, the premiere district, I might add with some prejudice, the southern district of New York, where she has distinguished herself."

D'Amato would go on to tout his support for Sotomayor during his unsuccessful bid for reelection in 1998, hoping, presumably, to strike a chord among Latino voters. Following that loss, he would serve as an influential lobbyist within and outside of New York. Through it all, he has not shied away from the political process, endorsing Fred Thompson in the 2008 election and then John McCain's and recently appearing on stage with Kirsten Gillibrand when she was appointed to replace Hillary Clinton.

Such activism had led Democrats working on Sotomayor's nomination to believe D'Amato would serve a public function during her confirmation process. But with New York's current, tumultuous political landscape -- in which Senate power just changed party hands -- his office said that the schedule his simply too full. One Democratic source noted that D'Amato had not been quoted "anywhere on Sotomayor."

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