Sotomayor Survives Day 1

GOP Prepares to Open Fire

Posted July 13, 2009 at 6:44pm

Heading into Day 2 of Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, Senate Republicans are employing a real-time, rapid-response effort to try to counter the Supreme Court hopeful’s statements and increase GOP opposition to her installment on the bench.

But even some Republicans, most notably Judiciary Committee member Lindsey Graham (S.C.), acknowledge that Sotomayor’s confirmation is all but assured, barring her making any major mistakes before the Judiciary Committee. The panel kicked off its first day of hearings on Monday, with questioning beginning Tuesday.

Operating out of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) communications center, the GOP has already booked more than 20 television and radio interviews for Senators on the nomination. And during Monday’s hearing, the communications hub fired off a flurry of response e-mails to question key points of Sotomayor’s opening statement.

For instance, even as Sotomayor was speaking before the Judiciary panel, the communications shop sent out an e-mail questioning her claims that she stopped being an advocate for specific causes when she joined the federal bench in the early 1990s. The e-mail, which cites Sotomayor’s activist work as far back as her time in college, tries to tie some of her rulings on affirmative action to her past involvement with a civil rights organization.

“Whether Democrats like it or not, Americans expect the nominee’s record to be thoroughly scrutinized before she’s handed a lifetime appointment, and it’s our goal to ensure that happens,— a GOP aide said.

Senate Democrats largely argued that Republicans are trying to focus the hearings — and the broader debate over her nomination — on her past work as an activist and avoid discussions of her lengthy record as an attorney and jurist.

“There was nothing about her record — 17 years on the bench, time as a prosecutor or litigator, or any other piece of her legal experience,— one Democratic source close to the White House argued.

Talking points distributed to Senate Democrats late Monday urged Senators to dismiss GOP complaints, calling them part of a larger dispute with the Obama administration and not relevant to Sotomayor’s confirmation process.

“Republican Senators have spoken at length about many extraneous topics and have spoken far less about Judge Sotomayor’s record as a prosecutor and as a judge. They have used this forum to speculate about novel interpretations of the law and express their philosophical differences with President Obama. … None of these comments, however, reflect on Judge Sotomayor and her exceptional record of judicial restraint and commitment to the rule of law,— the talking points said.

[IMGCAP(1)]Indeed, while Monday’s hearings featured a much more aggressive critique of Sotomayor than has been seen from most Republicans so far, they were largely uneventful. Obama nominated Sotomayor six weeks ago to replace retired Justice David Souter.

Despite a handful of abortion protesters, including Jane Roe, whose landmark Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationally in the 1970s, the hearings brought few partisan fireworks.

Democrats, as expected, heaped praise on Obama’s first Supreme Court nominee. “Judge Sotomayor, I believe, is a warm and intelligent woman. She is well-studied and experienced in the law … I have studied her record and believe she will be a fine Supreme Court justice and can be a critical voice in returning balance to this great American institution,— Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said.

And even Graham, a conservative, noted that, “Unless you have a major meltdown, you are going to be confirmed.— Other Republicans, while critical of Sotomayor, made note of her record and compelling life story.

Only ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) took an overly harsh line of attack, repeatedly critiquing her positions on affirmative action, the death penalty, the application of international law and other hot-button issues.

Sessions, who took over as the top Republican on the Judiciary panel in May, called Sotomayor’s previous statements on ethnicity and the role of the courts as dictators of policy “shocking and offensive to me— and called a number of her rulings as judge “troublesome.—

In her opening statement, Sotomayor explicitly rejected charges that her Hispanic heritage would bias her rulings. “Throughout my 17 years on the bench, I have witnessed the human consequences of my decisions. Those decisions have been made not to serve the interests of any one litigant, but always to serve the larger interest of impartial justice,— said Sotomayor, who would become the high court’s first Latina justice.

Sotomayor’s brief statement capped a long day of opening remarks by committee members that largely laid out the battle lines for the coming days. Throughout the day, Sotomayor sat before the Senators stoic and expressionless. Even when criticisms were lobbed or jokes cracked, she offered no reaction.

The confirmation hearings are expected to wrap up later this week, with an eye toward full Senate consideration in late July or early August. The Judiciary Committee could vote as early as next week on her nomination.

Sotomayor’s opening remarks appeared designed, at least in part, to respond to the early attacks against her. Some GOP Senators and conservative judicial groups have asserted that she would allow her heritage or gender to influence her decision-making.

But in her statement, Sotomayor sought to temper those concerns, arguing that she has spent her judicial career closely adhering to the law. Sotomayor serves on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“It is clear, I believe, that my record in two courts reflects my rigorous commitment to interpreting the Constitution according to its terms, interpreting statutes according to their terms and Congress’ intent, and hewing faithfully to precedents established by the Supreme Court and my circuit court. In each case I have heard, I have applied the law to the facts at hand,— Sotomayor said.

At one point, Sotomayor appeared to make a passing reference to a controversial comment in which she said a Latina would arrive at a better conclusion than a white male jurist, noting that her life experience would help guide her case evaluation — even as she is also guided by the law.

“The process of judging is enhanced when the arguments and concerns of the parties to the litigation are understood and acknowledged. That is why I generally structure my opinions by setting out what the law requires and then by explaining why a contrary position, sympathetic or not, is accepted or rejected. That is how I seek to strengthen both the rule of law and faith in the impartiality of our justice system. My personal and professional experiences help me listen and understand, with the law always commanding the result in every case,— Sotomayor said.

Sotomayor also used her opening statement to put some distance between her current work as a judge on the appeals court and her work with the controversial Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

While not directly naming the PRLDEF, Sotomayor noted that when she was confirmed as a federal district judge, she ended her work as “an advocate.—

“My career as an advocate ended — and my career as a judge began — when I was appointed by President George H.W. Bush to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York,— Sotomayor said.