Washington Matters


Sotomayor Grilling: Medium or Well Done?


Don't be surprised if there are fewer fireworks than the pundit crowd wants or expects in the Senate Judiciary confirmation hearings next month on Sonia Sotomayor to be on the Supreme Court. She's being trained daily now by the White House on the art of deflection, a true political science. The White House will be more than happy with a boring, even dull hearing.

She'll face a battery of questions about the roles race, gender and identity politics play in the modern courts and there'll be ad nauseam questions about what she really meant when she said in 2001 about Latina women judges and white male judges.

Look for her to have a careful and studied answer on this one. She'll say she meant it as an inspiration to young Hispanic women to aim high in life and career, not that her heritage would make her partial in any way on cases before her. A Republican panel member will no doubt read several instances over the years in different speeches where Sotomayor said nearly the same thing. OK. That will come in the bottom of the first inning, and she's more than prepared to handle it with poise and smarts.

Look for careful, deferential answers from Sotomayor and pledges of judicial impartiality in social policy, business and labor cases. Many Republicans will tread carefully. It will be hard for them to claim she is unfit or is a legal lightweight of a judge. Whether she is liked or not, it seems clear she has a wealth of experience and knowledge of case law. She might run circles around GOP senators with a slew of Latin words used only by high minded lawyers, much like Chief Justice John Roberts did very effectively in his own confirmation hearings.

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The question on her position on abortion and Roe v. Wade? That'll come in the second inning. She won't give a straight answer on it if she does have a personal opinion. She doesn't need to. She'll say she doesn't want to prejudge any case that may come before her. Committee members have to ask though because their constituents expect it. But they'll also have to move on.

She'll no doubt be asked about her views on legal precedent and when it should be ignored. She'll be asked what major decisions she would like to see overturned. That might be a little tricky but not a minefield. She'll be quizzed on states rights and their constitutional protections and the commerce clause in the Constitution regarding interstate trade. Nothing beyond her ability to handle. There may be only a couple curve balls in this whole game and no fingernail biting.

Many Republicans will tread carefully. Barring unforeseen revelations in the next couple weeks, they lack the votes to stop her or to delay final action or even to wage a spectacular, attention-grabbing debate. Opponents instead will use the hearings and floor debate in late July to state their own judicial preferences and philosophy, but many Senate Republicans who oppose her will vote to confirm anyway.

As much as half of the Republican caucus could vote "yea" in the end, giving her nearly 75 votes on confirmation. Look for Rush Limbaugh and other Republican commentators and columnists to blast them as spineless cowards, then move on.

After the vote to confirm, the court speculation will turn to other possible departures coming up, notably John Paul Stevens or Ruth Bader Ginsberg, both in frail physical condition. Sotomayor will be on the court by then, and we'll all get to know her a little better when the court starts handing down decisions late in the year.



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