Sonia Sotomayor and the charade of the empty vessel: How naive are we?

 As the well-orchestrated hearing for Sonya Sotomayor hit the luncheon break Tuesday afternoon, replete with righteous pontificating so often disguised as rigorous inquiry by   onetime lawyers on the Senate panel, one again viewed the Charade of the Empty Vessel.


The political strategy for any nominee who appears before the Judiciary Committee is crystal clear: Say as little as possible about your actual views of cases or your personal opinions. Of course, you should be prepared to be overtly contrite about controversial minutiae, specifically Tuesday morning hyperventilating over the now legendary "wise Latina" remark.


But why not? What about being open and candid about your views?


Imagine being a friend who was on vacation with Sotomayor. "Sonya, what do you think about cameras in the courtroom?" the friend might declare between sips of a Club Med pina colada.


"Sally, it's a question that I'm sure I'd offer my views on if the issue comes up before the court," responds Sotomayor at poolside. "And I certainly think that a new gal on the block might bring a different pair of eyes to the topic."


"Oh, Sonya, pass the suntan lotion and, please, tell me what you actually think about cameras in the courtroom? Hell, we're on vacation!" Sally again inquires.


"Sally, it's an interesting issue and I would, in a collegial fashion, certainly engage in discussion about the matter if it comes up. Should we order a couple of cheeseburgers from that hunk over there?"


That's essentially what Sotomayor said Tuesday to an inquiry from Sen. Herbert Kohl of Wisconsin. She ducked the entire matter, one of the lower-priority topics she confronted. What's the big deal about stating the obvious, namely the Luddite aversion to cameras by the highest court in the land?


I know lots of judges. I have socialize with them and realize, Republican or Democrat, they have distinct opinions and articulate them to me. At a lunch with one federal judge a few months ago, I got his take on lots of interesting matters, ranging from mobsters on trial to the competence of certain colleagues. Ditto with a state judge recently. The latter left few doubts about her personal views on lots of matters relevant to her jurisdiction.


But I don't for a moment doubt those judges' ability to put all their personal views generally aside in assessing particular dispute. Hey, just take a look at the often opinionated public declarations of Richard Posner, the brainy conservative federal appeals judge in Chicago who is a fellow correspondent in this space. He's the same guy whom President Obama once tagged as the judge he'd most like to argue before because, Obama asserted, he'd give him the fairest shake.


"We're not robots," Sotomayor said at one point Tuesday, trying to make the point that her past would make her more open-minded, not less.


But why does the culture of the Supreme Court nomination process almost insist that the nominee leave the illusion that he or she is precisely that, a robot?




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James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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