Newcomers Bask in Hearing’s Glow

Posted July 15, 2009 at 6:54pm

As Supreme Court hopeful Sonia Sotomayor easily maneuvered her way through a third day of confirmation hearings Wednesday, a trio of the Senate’s newest Democrats were using the confirmation process to make their own marks on the Senate.

Although no longer the Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) appeared to relish his new position as a Democratic backbencher free of the political pressures that came with his former position as the GOP’s point man on judicial nominations.

Minnesota’s Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, meanwhile, also shined during the hearings, demonstrating an ease on the national stage while playing their assigned roles in giving Sotomayor a platform from which to tout her legal résumé.

While there were questions about how Specter would handle sitting at the end of the Judiciary panel’s dais for the first time in decades, it quickly became clear that the Pennsylvanian still embraces being one of the Senate’s veteran legal minds. Specter, facing a strong primary challenge, bolted the GOP in April and thus gave up his seniority on Judiciary, where he served as chairman during the previous two Supreme Court nominations.

Specter on Wednesday questioned why his former Republican colleagues were focusing on Sotomayor’s 2002 comment that a “wise Latina— would sometimes arrive at better conclusions. And he offered kind words to President Barack Obama’s choice for the high court: “You have held up very well through all of the proceedings in the Senate. … You have shown humor and intellect and charm and also modesty.

“Now on to the issues. … I begin with an area of cases which the court has decided not to decide,— he said.

Specter delved into the minute details of legal theory with phrases like “congruence and proportionality— — an obscure test used by the Supreme Court to evaluate whether Congress has the authority to legislate over a particular issue.

He also waded into legal issues such as the separation of powers, allowing televisions in the courtroom, the relatively few number of cases that the Supreme Court has considered and the Voting Rights Act.

[IMGCAP(1)]A former prosecutor, Specter has long been viewed as a tenacious questioner who favored policy over politics. He had to lobby Republicans to give him the Judiciary gavel in early 2005 to oversee what is arguably the Senate’s most partisan committee.

A source close to Specter acknowledged that not having the constraints of the chairmanship or ranking member post has liberated him.

“It allows him to delve into the issues he really cares about rather than doing something for party’s sake,— this source said. “I don’t know if he’d get to use the term congruence and proportionality’ as much if he was chairman.—

That’s not to say that he was any less cantankerous, particularly with a nominee who seemed unwilling to answer his questions directly. Specter repeatedly chastised Sotomayor for not answering his queries.

“Well I can tell you’re not going to answer, so let me move on,— he said at one point, while later he quipped: “I’m not commenting about your answers, but your record is exemplary. … You’ve studied the questions and you’ve studied the record, and your qualifications as a witness are terrific and in accordance with precedence. You’re following the precedence very closely.—

Unlike Specter, who is one of the longest-serving Senators, Klobuchar and Franken are two of the chamber’s newest — with Franken as the most junior Senator with just a week’s worth of seniority under his belt. But despite the intense media scrutiny, both demonstrated ease in their questioning, mixing off-the-cuff humor with serious policy questions in a way clearly designed to put Sotomayor at ease and allow her a wide berth to rebut conservative attacks on her previous speeches.

Klobuchar — who began her opening remarks by listing a series of little-known facts about some of her colleagues — noted that she had met Sotomayor’s mother in the bathroom during a midmorning break. “I’ve been focusing on how patient your mother has been through this whole thing because I ran into her in the restroom just now, and I can tell you, she has a lot she’d like to say. … She has plenty of stories that she would like to share about you,— Klobuchar said.

“Senators, don’t give her the chance!— Sotomayor pleaded, to which Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) responded, “The chairman is tempted.—

Klobuchar then walked Sotomayor through a series of questions on the Second Amendment, her “wise Latina— comments and other issues that Republicans had used to attack the nominee, providing Sotomayor with a series of opportunities to defend her record and statements.

Franken — who made a campaign “promise— to not be funny while in the Senate — appeared to finally be settling into his role as a Senator. Bringing up the rear of the first round of questions, Franken started by noting their shared fondness for the show “Perry Mason.—

“It was a great show. It amazed me that you wanted to become a prosecutor because the prosecutor on that show … lost every week,— Franken said.

“I am asking you questions because you have been nominated to be a justice of the United States Supreme Court. I think that’s pretty cool,— Franken said before launching into a series of questions on specific legal issues, including a detailed back-and-forth over whether access to the Internet is a First Amendment issue.

Franken, like Klobuchar, provided Sotomayor with a chance to rebut some of her critics at the end of his questions. Picking up on Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) questioning of whether abortion is specifically covered by the Constitution, Franken asked, “Are the words birth control in the Constitution?— to which Sotomayor responded “No.—

“Are you sure,— Franken asked to chuckles from the crowd, before going through a series of other examples of issues that are not explicitly covered in the Constitution.

“So if a word doesn’t actually appear in the Constitution, it isn’t really relevant, is it?— he asked. Sotomayor said the Constitution is specific on some issues — such as the age requirements for being elected a Senator. But on others, she said, “The Constitution is written in broad terms, and what a court does is look at how those terms are applied to a particular set of facts.—

Republicans continued to pick apart a handful of speeches that Sotomayor has given over the years that they say show she will become a liberal activist judge after she is on the Supreme Court.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) followed the GOP’s strategy of using the questioning period to try to rally the GOP’s conservative base, focusing on hot-button issues of abortion, affirmative action and race.

But unlike Tuesday’s session, during which ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Graham took a combative approach to their questions, Cornyn and Coburn avoided using overly partisan or aggressive language.

At one point, Coburn asked Sotomayor whether it is legal for citizens to use a gun to defend themselves, posing a hypothetical question to elicit a response from Sotomayor. The high court hopeful replied, “If I go home and get a gun and come back and shoot you, that may not be legal under New York law.—

“You’d have lots of ’splainin’ to do,— Coburn retorted with a chuckle.

During the afternoon session, Sessions once again took an aggressive approach, charging that Sotomayor was “less than truthful— Tuesday in testimony on her role with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, pointing to a series of members between 1985 and 1988 that show she was extensively involved in the group’s planning.

Sotomayor countered that her testimony Tuesday had simply been about her work on the PRLDEF’s board of directors and not other activities with the group.

But despite their best efforts, Republicans did not appear to have put Sotomayor off her game significantly.

The committee will begin Day Three of questioning Thursday morning and could begin hearing testimony from witnesses as soon as Thursday afternoon.