As Sonia Sotomayor's first Senate confirmation hearing has drawn nearer over the past week, there's been speculation as to how harshly Republican senators would criticize her. She's expected to be confirmed fairly easily, but the committee process offers, with national TV cameras present, offers committee members a chance to grandstand and make their points in front of a larger-than-usual audience.
With conservative groups blasting Sotomayor, there's some pressure on GOP senators to do the same; with the party looking to compete for the Hispanic vote, there's pressure to treat the first Hispanic Supreme Court nominee amicably.
So, with that in mind, here's a rundown of how GOP senators performed at today's hearing.
As a group, Republican senators blasted President Obama's professed standard of "empathy" as a desirable quality in judicial nominees (which a senior administration official has since modified) above all . Almost across the board, they questioned Obama's judicial philosophy before delving into Sotomayor's previous decisions and statements--which they did discuss heavily. They called it a dangerous precedent for judicial appointments.
The "wise Latina" quote figured prominently in Republicans' opening remarks; they roundly questioned her impartiality, and, tying her to Obama's "empathy" preference through some of her statements outside the courtroom, they raised concerns that she's a subjectivist who doesn't think judges should keep their "heart" or "gut" feelings separate from their decisions.
GOP senators told Sotomayor they want to see a respectful, dignified hearing process, and they often praised her personal history and years of experience; they remarked on the historical significance of her nomination as a Latina. Their criticisms were at times pointed, but they were neither personal nor aggressive; those who pointed to Sotomayor's quotes and decisions did so in the spirit of raising questions about her philosophy: they did not assert positively that she's too partial or definitely ascribe any certain philosophy to her.
Here's a recounting/analysis of some key GOP senators and how they performed, individually:
Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC): Graham gets an A for being the most pithy and direct. He will, most likely, make more headlines than any other GOP senator, based on his performance this morning: he told Sotomayor point-blank that no Republican would have picked her, and he predicted "unless you have a complete meltdown, you're gonna get confirmed, and I don't think you will."
In another quotable moment, Graham injected some political realism into the hearing, echoing a point made by Sotomayor's backers--that Obama's election victory should allow his nominee some deference, and perhaps confirmation. "We lost, and President Obama won, and that oughtta matter," Graham said. Ranking Member Jeff Sessions fielded a question about the remark and a short briefing with reporters after the hearing adjourned, saying he agreed with Graham's sentiment.
Graham will likely get the most face time on TV news coverage of the hearing today and tonight.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (UT): Hatch stood out as the friendliest to Sotomayor among the committee's Republicans. A longtime member of the committee, Hatch exudes an intellectual independence in the vein of his longtime colleague, Sen. Arlen Specter. He stressed during his remarks that he wants the proceedings to be "respectful and substantive"; his remarks were laced with that sentiment, above questions over Sotomayor's impartiality. He strongly criticized the political aspect of judicial confirmation processes.
"Some of the things that have been said about Judge Sotomayor have been intemperate and unfair," Hatch said, warning against political attacks from the left as well as he cited reports of a "smear campaign" against Frank Ricci, the white firefighter plaintiff who Sotomayor, controversially, ruled against in the New Haven affirmative action case.
Hatch also questioned Obama's commitment to impartiality, but he stood out as a defender of Sotomayor, asserting himself as independent of partisanship.
Ranking Member Jeff Sessions (AL): Sessions offered some of the most pointed criticism of Sotomayor. He set the tone for committee Republicans by warning of the enormous power Supreme Court justices enjoy; he listed instances of judicial activism that included habeas corpus rights for terrorism suspects, removing "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, private prayer in schools, and "public use" interpretations that demand the sale of private homes for roads and developments.
As the committee's top Republican, Sessions signaled that his GOP colleagues have serious concerns about Sotomayor; his opening remarks paved the way for other senators to criticize Sotomayor more directly.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX): Cornyn is perhaps the most interesting Republican to watch on the committee. As chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (the party's fundraising arm for Senate campaigns), Cornyn offers a crucible of the political ramifications involved in Sotomayor's confirmation battle. He is under some pressure to criticize Sotomayor, given that she's become a rallying cry for some conservatives, and that judicial nominees matter to GOP donors. He's also under pressure not to criticize her, as the GOP wants to compete for Hispanic votes. Cornyn, in particular, will want to appear neither as weak or as beating up on the first Hispanic nominee.
That said, Cornyn's opening statement contained nothing too shocking. He was sure to praise the historic nature of Sotomayor's nomination, and he raised the same concerns other GOP senators like Sessions, Tom Coburn, and Jon Kyl raised about her quotes and previous decisions. He did so in an even tone throughout.
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