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.
Sotomayor's personal experiences "will only do one thing, and that is strengthen this institution," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (CA) said.
"I believe a diverse court will function better," Sen. Ted Kaufman (DE) said, offering the day's most direct comment on the value of Sotomayor's background and upbringing.
Sen. Graham provided the most quotable moments of the day. For highlights and analysis of his performance see posts here and here. He predicted Sotomayor will be confirmed and said Obama's election victory should afford her some preference in the eyes of the Senate.
"Now unless you have a complete meltdown, you're gonna get confirmed, and I don't think you will, but the drama that's being created here is interesting," he said.
"We lost, and President Obama won, and that oughtta matter," Graham said in another quotable moment.
Franken and Specter
The last two senators to speak were the committee's two most junior Democrats--Arlen Specter and Al Franken.
When Specter switched parties earlier this year, he lost his seniority on committees; today was his first high-profile appearance in that role. As the committee's former chairman, Specter spoke first at hearings until 2006, when Democrats took control of Congress.
During his opening remarks, Specter brought up the recent New York Times story about a secret CIA program that former Vice President Dick Cheney allegedly told the CIA not to tell Congress about.
"Well, the president didn't follow that law [requiring the CIA to brief Congress on its activities]. Did he have the right to do so under Article II powers? Well, we don't know," Specter said.
Franken, meanwhile, made his first high-profile appearance as a senator. He spent most of the hearing genuflecting before the Senate's traditions and veteran members, paying tribute to the ailing Sen. Ted Kennedy. For more on Franken's appearance, see this post.
Sonia Sotomayor was the last to speak, after a break for lunch and some lengthy introductions from Sens. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), the two senators from her home state, both hailing from Obama's party.
She recounted life and professional experiences and confronted questions on her impartiality. Here are som excerpts from the three-page prepared statement:
The progression of my life has been uniquely American. My parents left Puerto Rico during World War II. I grew up in modest circumstances in a Bronx housing project. My father, a factory worker with a third grade education, passed away when I was nine years old...
Throughout my seventeen 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...
In the past month, many Senators have asked me about my judicial philosophy. It is simple: fidelity to the law. The task of a judge is not to make the law - it is to apply 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...