After weeks of meeting with senators in their offices on Capitol Hill, Sonia Sotomayor made her first appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee today.
Nothing happened that was particularly unexpected: GOP senators raised questions about impartiality, judicial activism, Sotomayor's rulings and the "wise Latina" quote; Democrats praised her personal background and the historic quality of her nomination as the first Hispanic and third woman to come before the committee seeking a Supreme Court appointment. The hearing was thrice interrupted by shouting members of the audience.
We didn't hear much from Sonia Sotomayor herself. Most of the hearing was dedicated to the 18 committee members' 10-minute opening statements. Sotomayor then read a brief statement recounting her life story and career, and how they have shaped her.
Overall, we can't judge Sotomayor too thoroughly on the hearing. She delivered a statement that confronted accusations of bias, but she wasn't the one performing. It was the senators who were on stage.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) provided the most news and entertainment, with a prediction that Sotomayor will be confirmed barring a "meltdown," professing that he doesn't know how he'll vote, and giving countenance to President Obama's victory over Republicans in November.
Here are some highlights:
The hearing started on a collegial note as Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) encouraged Sotomayor to introduce members of her family at the hearing.
Leahy offered warm opening remarks, dropping President Obama's oft-used quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. that "the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bents toward justice"; Sotomayor, Leahy said, could be the next step in that arc.
Ranking Member Jeff Sessions (R-AL) came out swinging for the Republicans. After acknowledging the personal significance of the hearing for Sotomayor, he issued strong warnings about judicial activism.
"We have seen judges force their political and social agenda on this nation," Sessions said, going on to blast President Obama's stated preference for judges with "empathy," then raising some of Sotomayor's past statements (e.g. the "wise Latina" remark) and rulings.
Sessions set the rhetorical framework for the committee's Republicans. By and large, they used Obama's stated judicial philosophy as a punching bag, suggesting Obama does not value impartiality, and then moved on to Sotomayor's rulings and statements, raising concerns that her past comments suggest she shares Obama's philosophy.
Republicans face dual political pressures as they examine Sotomayor. On one hand, the party wants to compete for Hispanic votes in upcoming election cycles, and GOP senators don't want to be too hard on Sotomayor--they lose points for bashing the nation's first Hispanic Supreme Court nominee. Republican senators spent due time praising Sotomayor's historic nomination; Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC) said Republicans would have picked their own Hispanic nominee, had they been given a chance.
"We would have picked Miguel Estrada, and we all would have voted for him," Graham said.
At the same time, conservative groups have blasted Sotomayor since her nomination, seeking to turn her into a rallying cry for the party's conservative base. That doesn't work to Republicans' advantage if they vote for her. Sen. John Cornyn (TX), chairman of the party's fundraising arm for Senate campaigns, sits on the committee. As did other Republicans, Cornyn both praised Sotomayor's nomination and questioned her judicial philosophy; as with other Republicans, his tone was even throughout. Though the cameras and high profile of the hearing provided a good opportunity for grandstanding, Republicans generally avoided bombast.
Demcorats, predictably, praised Sotomayor's personal background, taking on conservative talking points and GOP philosophy directly or indirectly.