GOP Escalates Attacks on Sotomayor

Posted June 23, 2009 at 6:30pm

Senate Democrats and Republicans on Tuesday engaged in the first tentative skirmishes in the war over the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, trading shots over whether she should be judged on her experience or philosophy during the confirmation process.

Republicans also remained adamant that if they do not have enough time to review Sotomayor’s judicial record before her hearings begin in mid-July, they will push to have them delayed.

Led by Judiciary ranking member Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the GOP fired the first shot Tuesday in what is expected to be a multistaged effort to highlight problems with Sotomayor’s approach to the judiciary, while also making the broader case for a more conservative judicial view than the White House has taken.

In a series of Senate floor speeches, Republicans leveled their harshest criticism of Sotomayor to date, accusing the federal judge and President Barack Obama of espousing a view of the judiciary based on empathy that is little more than racial or gender prejudice.

“When there is empathy toward one, is it not prejudice toward the other? There are always litigants on the other side, and they deserve to have their cases decided on the law. … What I’ve seen thus far in Judge Sotomayor’s record — and presumably some of her views are the reason President Obama selected her — cause me concern that the nominee will look outside the law and the evidence in judging and that her policy preferences could influence her decision-making,— Sessions said.

Likewise, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called Sotomayor’s empathy “troubling.—

“Judge Sotomayor’s writings offer a window into what she believes having empathy for certain groups means when it comes to judging. And I believe that once Americans come to appreciate the real-world consequences of this view, they’ll find the empathy standard extremely troubling as a criterion for selecting men and women for the federal bench,— McConnell said.

[IMGCAP(1)]Sessions and Republicans also took aim at Sotomayor’s involvement in the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, a civil rights organization in which Sotomayor was an officer from 1980 to 1992.

Republicans for the first time openly questioned the group’s motives, picking up on a line of criticism pushed by conservatives for months that the organization is “militant— and “far left.—

“Looking at the long association the nominee has with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund — an organization that is … I believe, clearly outside the mainstream of [an] American approach to matters — this is a group that has taken some very shocking positions with respect to terrorism,— Sessions said. He also called the group a “radical nationalist— organization.

Republicans also took aim at her positions on affirmative action, the death penalty and other hot-button issues for conservatives, and GOP aides said Republican committee staff have been mining her work with the PRLDEF in particular for evidence that she will bring to the high court a left-leaning perspective on the Constitution and judicial philosophy.

Democrats, meanwhile, have mounted an aggressive defense of Sotomayor, arguing that her extensive record in the courtroom makes speculation on how her public statements or other activities will affect her tenure on the Supreme Court meaningless.

“There’s no reason to speculate about her record. She’s participated in over 3,000 panel decisions. There’s a long paper trail and record— from which to judge her qualifications, a White House official said.

With Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) acting as field marshal, Democrats — including committee member Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) — spent much of the afternoon Tuesday pushing back against the GOP attacks on the Senate floor.

According to Democrats and White House officials, their strategy for blunting the GOP’s criticism of Sotomayor centers around making the case based on her record as a judge, prosecutor and attorney, rather than engaging in a point-counterpoint argument with Republicans.

For instance, Leahy and other Democrats sought to focus on Sotomayor’s “extraordinary career— and her long service on the bench, highlighting cases in which they say she has repeatedly proven she defers to the law rather than any personal political preference. Leahy said he has been “struck by her extraordinary career and how she’s excelled at everything she’s done.—

Similarly, during an event with Hispanic law enforcement officials, Menendez said that while the fact that Sotomayor is the first Latina nominee to the Supreme Court, her qualifications for serving stem from her record, not her ethnicity. “As a Latino, it fills me with pride … but above all it gives me great pride to vote for the right person to the highest court in the land,— Menendez said.

Meanwhile, Republicans said Tuesday that they remain unhappy with the amount of information that Sotomayor has produced, particularly in regards to her time with the PRLDEF, and that they may push Leahy to postpone the hearings.

Sessions argued that the documentation of her work outside of the judiciary is key to understanding how she will act as a judge and that Republicans will likely seek more time to review her record if documents are not turned over soon. “Those speeches and statements and her political activities, to the extent that they reveal her philosophy on judging … are very important,— Sessions said. “We’re looking right now to see how far behind we are. We’re making our best effort to comply with this deadline.—

But Leahy said he remains unconvinced that Republicans need more time and hinted that to deviate from his schedule — which is modeled on the confirmation schedule used for Chief Justice John Roberts — would be inappropriate. “We have to have the same timetable as for Roberts,— he said.

Leahy also indicated that while he may be inclined to discuss a possible delay if Republicans were to agree to not delay or filibuster a vote on the nomination, no suggestion of such a deal has come from Republicans at this point.

“They’re unable to give that kind of agreement. … I mean, they can’t give us assurances on anything,— Leahy said.