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Advice From One Supreme Court Sherpa to Another

Jamie Brown, left, special assistant to the president; Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr.; former Indiana senator Daniel R. Coats; and police officer R.D. Moore on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)

President Obama's first Supreme Court nomination is shining a spotlight on the delicate and critical role of the sherpa, the person (or persons) tapped with ushering the nominee through the grisly and byzantine Senate confirmation process.

One misstep by the sherpa could have a fatal ripple effect, as Jamie Brown, a former Bush White House legislative affairs aide, explains.

She was a behind the scenes sherpa for the high-stakes confirmation battles of both Samuel Alito and John Roberts, George W. Bush's two successful Supreme Court choices. As such, she wound up in newspaper photos across the country.

Brown spoke with us about the do's and don't of the job, what not to wear and when to keep quiet. And she had some notable advice to give President Obama's team of aides, who are ushering Sonia Sotomayor around Capitol Hill for meetings with the senators whose votes could make or break her nomination to the high court.

Sleuth: What is Rule Numero Uno for a Supreme Court sherpa?

Brown: A good sherpa stays in the background but is strong in his or her guidance when it comes to who, when and how to talk to senators. Also, always pay attention to what your nominee says in a courtesy visit. If your nominee says one thing and the senator hears another -- and, oh, maybe talks to the press about it -- you better know what really happened!

Sleuth: How should a sherpa handle the Washington paparazzi?

Brown: The press scrum following you around will be huge and relentless. It's a great way to experience what it's like to be Britney Spears without embarrassing your mother.

Sleuth: President Obama, unlike Bush, hasn't really appointed a celebrity sherpa for this confirmation process. What's your thought on that?

Brown: Line up a TV star to be your fellow Sherpa! We went with [former senator] Fred Thompson of "Law & Order" fame. For this administration, I'd recommend someone with real-life, empathetic judicial experience.... Paula Abdul. Who else could deliver this message better: 'First of all, senator, you look fantastic today. I love your outfit. I am just so proud of you. You really made that line of questioning your own.'

Sleuth: What role does the sherpa play in planning the dozens of courtesy meetings the Supreme Court nominee has with senators in advance of the confirmation hearing?

Brown: It's essential for a nominee to make a personal connection with potential Senate supporters -- this helps to solidify their support and hopefully make them an enthusiastic and active participant in the floor debate and with the press.

Sleuth: How do you prepare the nominee for the real show in the Senate Judiciary Committee?

Brown: We murder-boarded our nominees to prep them for the hearings. I'm not sure if the Geneva Conventions address this activity, but we briefed Speaker Pelosi first to cover ourselves.

Sleuth: You wound up in countless photos. To what lengths did you go to avoid bad hair days and fashion disasters?

Brown: There was definitely some pressure to keep those outfits varied, and I admit to having splurged a little during that time. I also learned the hard lessons. They always tell you not to wear white on TV because it adds pounds -- I should have listened.

Sleuth: What boundaries should the sherpa draw with the nominee?

Brown: Never put the nominee in an undignified situation. Once when we were leaving the Hill after a series of courtesy visits, the normal White House car service was unavailable so I offered to drive [former White House counselor] Ed Gillespie and then-Judge Roberts back in my car, a Mini Cooper. As I was about to pull up, Ed called to let me know the press had found them and he absolutely did not want a picture of the future Chief Justice climbing into my clown car. Ed is a wise man.

Sleuth: What should a sherpa avoid at all cost?

Brown: No matter how ridiculous or unfair a question may be at the confirmation hearing, you must do everything possible not to roll your eyes in disgust.

By Mary Ann Akers  |  June 5, 2009; 12:18 PM ET
Categories:  Supreme Court  
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