Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor last year accepted an invitation to join the Belizean Grove, an elite but little-known women’s-only group.
Founded nearly 10 years ago as the female answer to the Bohemian Grove — a secretive all-male club whose members have included former U.S. presidents and top business leaders — the Belizean Grove has about 125 members, including Army generals, Wall Street executives and former ambassadors.
Sotomayor’s membership in the New York-based group became public Thursday afternoon in a questionnaire submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Since then, the group has been deluged with press calls, said its founder, Susan Stautberg, who explained that “we like to be under the radar screen.”
The group — which on its website describes itself as “a constellation of influential women who are key decision makers in the profit, nonprofit and social sectors; who build long-term, mutually beneficial relationships in order to both take charge of their own destinies and help others to do the same” — hosts periodic meetings around New York, as well as an annual off-the-record three-day retreat in Central or South America at which its members attend cocktail parties with U.S. diplomats and host-country officials and participate in panel discussions on public policy and business affairs.
At last year’s retreat in Lima, Peru, for instance, Sotomayor and the other members attended a reception at the American Embassy with U.S. Ambassador to Peru P. Michael McKinley and several female members of the Peruvian cabinet, Stautberg said. Sotomayor, a federal appellate judge, gave a presentation on the challenges the judiciary faces in maintaining its independence from the legislative and executive branches.
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“It was really about how you need to have that balance of power and that the judiciary needed to have the ability to really be itself and not be influenced politically,” said Grove member Cathy Allen, the chief executive officer of a financial services firm in , N.M. Allen said she didn’t take notes on the speech and added, “Everything we do is off the record.”
In a quote on the group’s website, Sotomayor called the Grove “an extraordinary grouping of talented, compassionate and passionate women. I am deeply honored to have been included. The joy of participating in your fun in Peru was wonderful.”
Mary Pearl, a dean and vice president at New York’s Stony Brook University, called the talk “inspiring” and said she came away from it impressed by Sotomayor’s “profound respect for the Constitution and our legal framework in this country.”
The two became friends through the group, which, Pearl said, is kind of the point of it.
“It’s hard if you’re someone who’s a type ‘A’ personality, who’s achieved a lot and who may be in the public eye — it’s hard to make friends, so it’s just a mutually supportive wonderful experience. We get together just for socializing and also just for intelligent conversation,” said Pearl, adding that the group charges a couple hundred dollar membership fee and also participates in charitable work.
But it’s not open to just anyone.
“The way you become a member is people recommend friends to join and we have an advisory board (that makes the final determination),” said Pearl, who is a member of that board. “You have to have achieved something, but you have to have a really good personality, too. You could be the richest person in the world with a resume that goes on for 50 pages, but if you don’t have a sense of humor, then people won’t want you to be a member.”
Pearl called it “elite in the sense that anything that has more people who want to be in it than are in it is elite. But it’s not elite in that people from all walks of life who are interesting can become a members.”
An out-dated member list on the group’s website lists members including former General Services Administration Director Lurita Doan, Army General Ann E. Dunwoody, former Goldman Sachs partner Ann Kaplan and IKEA executive Pernille Spiers-Lopez.
According to Stautberg, a former Washington bureau chief for Westinghouse Broadcasting, Sotomayor was recommended by Mari Carmen Aponte, a former Carter administration official who later served as Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration in Washington.
Sotomayor “came to some events and got to know some of the members” and then was approved by the advisory board, said Stautberg, who called Sotomayor “a very bright, very decent, very nice woman.”
Stautberg said she hoped Sotomayor could still be a member of the Grove if she’s confirmed to the court, though the White House did not respond to questions about her plans.
And Stautberg brushed off a question about whether the Grove’s women-only membership could generate controversy as the Bohemian Grove’s exclusively male membership did in 1979, when the state of California sued the club for not hiring female employees as its facility there.
Stautberg stressed that male “spouses, partners and adult children” are permitted to go on the optional post-retreat expeditions (last year’s was to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley) and said that even though “no man has ever applied to be a member. … If they did, we would certainly vote on it.”
The American Bar Association’s judicial codes states that it is inappropriate for judges to belong to groups that “invidiously” discriminate on the basis of race, sex, religion or national origin.
On the questionnaire, Sotomayor wrote that “I do not consider the Belizean Grove to invidiously discriminate on the basis of sex in violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct.”
While conspiracy theorists have cast the Bohemian Grove as a cog in a shadowy right-leaning globalist cabal, Pearl said the Belizean Grove is nonpartisan and stressed, “There’s nothing nefarious about it.”