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Senators Weigh In on Sotomayor’s Confirmation Prospects

June 3, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor met with more lawmakers Wednesday as controversy continued to simmer over some of her past remarks. Sens. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., and Ben Cardin, D-Md., weigh in on Sotomayor's nomination.

GWEN IFILL: Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor stepped up her visits on Capitol Hill today, sitting down with eight more senators for getting-to-know-you chats.

The federal judge engaged in only small talk as long as cameras were rolling, but apparently held extensive conversation with the senators behind closed doors.

Two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who have met with her join me now. They are Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham.

Welcome to you both, gentlemen.

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), Maryland: Thank you.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), South Carolina: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Graham, you were quoted today after your meeting with Judge Sotomayor as saying that, if the same standards were being applied now as were applied during the Alito and Roberts hearings, you would have already made up your mind to vote against her. So have you made up your mind?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: No, because I haven’t decided if I would apply that standard. There was a time in the Senate when a person like Scalia and Justice Ginsburg — she got 96 votes, Justice Scalia got 98.

I can’t imagine any Republican voting for Justice Ginsburg not understanding that she was liberal. I can’t imagine any Democrat voting for Justice Scalia not understanding he was conservative. We’ve lost our way.

And my point is that President Obama voted against Alito and Roberts, and he created a standard that if I followed I don’t think I could vote for Judge Sotomayor.

And I don’t know what I’m going to do. She is a very nice person, very qualified, sterling character, but I was that direct with her. I’ve got to find out what I think is best for the Senate, and I’d like to get back to the good, old days where we accepted differences and we voted for qualifications. We’ll see.

Defining 'principal standards'

Sen. Ben Cardin
I have confidence in her. But I'll tell you, this is the Supreme Court. This is a lifetime appointment. I think we need to allow the confirmation process to go forward.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Cardin, you met with Judge Sotomayor, and I wonder whether you've made up your mind.

SEN. BEN CARDIN: Well, I'll tell you, I'm very impressed by her background, what she's been able to accomplish as a trial court judge, appellate court judge, a prosecutor. I thought she was very open and straightforward with me in our interview as to how she would decide tough cases.

I have confidence in her. But I'll tell you, this is the Supreme Court. This is a lifetime appointment. I think we need to allow the confirmation process to go forward. I certainly hope, as Sen. Graham has pointed out, that at the end of the day there's going to be more consensus in the Senate that brings us together in a decision rather than pulls us apart.

GWEN IFILL: What do you think of Senator Graham's ideology argument? That sounds like it would make it impossible for anybody to cross party lines to vote for any nominee.

SEN. BEN CARDIN: Well, I'm not so sure there's a formula for how we make a judgment on this, but I do think Senator Graham makes a good point in that the principal standards should be the person's qualifications, the person's character, whether that person has the background to be on the Supreme Court, but I think it's also important to let the confirmation process go forward.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Senator Graham, let's talk about those standards, temperament, character, judicial experience, background. What have you learned so far in this, I guess, not even a week of debate about Judge Sotomayor that makes you feel more troubled or less troubled about her candidacy?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Well, from an individual point of view, she is very impressive. She's accomplished a lot. I enjoyed my meeting. I think she's a very fine person.

There's accusations by lawyers who appeared before her that she has a bad judicial temperament. She indicated to me that there were other people who would come in and suggest otherwise. That's why the hearing is important, how she carries herself.

I'm not going to judge her by the one now-famous statement that her experience as a Latina woman would give her a -- make her a better judge than a white male. I think that's something she needs to correct; I think it was inappropriate. I don't think she's a racist.

From her background judicially, I don't know yet. I haven't had a chance to look at her cases. I am sure a Republican would not have chosen her, but that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with her being chosen. We'll just have to wait and see how she performs.

Is she an ideologue? You know, it's OK to have a different ideology or a different philosophy than I do. I don't want an advocate wearing a robe. And from what I can tell, she's not, but there are some cases that are troubling, so we'll find out.

Sotomayor's comments

Sen. Lindsey Graham
But her speech is troubling. And, quite frankly, I think she needs to address that.

GWEN IFILL: I don't want to skip over something you mentioned in passing, that's Newt Gingrich's comment that she is a racist.


GWEN IFILL: He took that back or stepped away from that today.


GWEN IFILL: Do you think that was a good idea?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Yes, because she's clearly not. I mean, a person who's -- that's a horrible thing to say about somebody, quite frankly. That's a very hard-hitting blow.

And look at the way she's lived her life. She's worked in all kinds of environments. She's worked with people from all walks of life. And no one's ever said that about her.

But her speech is troubling. And, quite frankly, I think she needs to address that. I didn't ask her to apologize. Traditionally, nominees do not talk before the hearing, but I'm sure she will address that. I think she should. I think it would help the country; I think it would help her.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Cardin, what are the outstanding questions you have now about Judge Sotomayor that you would like to see her begin to address?

SEN. BEN CARDIN: Well, as I talked with her in my office, I think having a passion for the Constitution and the protections that the Constitution provides against abuses of government, I think that's an important standard that the Supreme Court needs to be attentive to.

So I will continue to ask those questions, but I must tell you, I want a judge who's going to follow the law, who's going to follow the precedence of the court, that's going to respect the power of the court itself, and there will be questions I'll ask on specific issues, and we'll have a chance to talk about it.

GWEN IFILL: And, Senator Cardin, even the president and his spokesmen have suggested that some of the words that Judge Sotomayor used in a speech that Sen. Graham referenced were inappropriate. Do you agree with that?

SEN. BEN CARDIN: I do. I think that she went too far in what she said. I know she's sort of clarified as to what she meant, and I take that as an explanation, and I'm satisfied to move on. But I think it's important that she clarify that.

Comparing different standards

Sen. Lindsey Graham
Twenty-five miles of the marathon is based on qualification; that last mile is empathy.

GWEN IFILL: I want to go back to Senator Graham on contrasting this Alito-Roberts standard to the Ginsburg-Scalia standard.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Yes. Yes, interesting.

GWEN IFILL: And I wonder whether it's possible that we're ever going to get back to this point again...

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Good question.

GWEN IFILL: ... in your opinion, where there is going to be less ideology on this point rather than more.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Well, obviously, there's a political point I'm trying to make here, to be honest with you, that President Obama, when he was a senator, voted against Alito and Roberts, who I think were enormously qualified.

I'm sure he didn't agree with their philosophy or their ideology, but no one could say they were not qualified men of good character. And he found a way to vote against them, and he set on the record a standard where it's not enough to be qualified, it's not enough to have a good background and to be a nice person. Ideology, philosophy, record matters.

Twenty-five miles of the marathon is based on qualification; that last mile is empathy. And he found that Judge Roberts didn't have the empathy to sit on the Supreme Court.

I think, if we start looking at it that way, I'm never going to be able to vote for somebody that comes from the liberal side of the aisle because they may have a different philosophy than I do. And I would like the president, quite frankly, to tell me, if I use his standard, why should I vote for Judge Sotomayor when you didn't vote for Alito and Roberts? What about her -- why should I do that?

GWEN IFILL: Senator, why wouldn't you use your own standard?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: You know, that's a good question. Because I want to make sure the game -- and there is a game here, and it's a game that's hurt the country, quite frankly -- that we start over. I want to make sure that the Senate is going to go forward in a new way.

And I think the president can help assure us that. And as you look back -- as you look back, he's basically asking me to do something he wasn't able to do himself. And I'm trying to find a way to move forward. But is it going to be this way in the future? Are we going to have this standard in the future or are we going to break?

I think Ben is new to the Senate. I think he can help us, quite frankly. He doesn't have the baggage that I'm dealing with because I remember how it was with Alito and Roberts, and it didn't sit well with me.

Does the timetable matter?

Sen. Ben Cardin
[I]t's not about using Senator Obama's standards. It's about using the standard that we think is right in the Senate, in the confirmation process.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Senator Cardin about that, then. You're new to the Senate; you don't have the baggage, according to your colleague there. Do you see this fault line that Senator Graham sees in the way some people should vote? Do you think that the president's point of view or his past behavior on this sort of vote should influence yours?

SEN. BEN CARDIN: Well, Senator Graham is known in the Senate for being a principled senator and for speaking his mind, and I very much appreciate that.

Let me just say that President Obama will not have a vote in the Senate, and it's not about using Senator Obama's standards. It's about using the standard that we think is right in the Senate, in the confirmation process. Each senator will have to make his or her own judgment.

But I really do hope that we can find more civility as we go through judicial nominations; I think that's important.

GWEN IFILL: And, Senator Cardin, do you think the timetable matters? The president has been asking for August, and the Senate leadership has been suggesting perhaps September. Does that matter?

SEN. BEN CARDIN: I think it's important that we try to act in time for the next term of the Supreme Court. I hope we can meet that time schedule.

GWEN IFILL: Do you agree with that, Sen. Lindsey Graham?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Yes, I think we can -- Justice Roberts, if you use the Alito timetable, that puts us in September. He was approved September the 29th.

This is a lifetime appointment. She's got 3,000 cases. Some of them trouble me. I think we need to be thorough, fair, and I think we can do this by the October term.

But let's don't rush it. We've had a chance here to start over and clear up some problems for the country as a whole. Let's take advantage of it.

GWEN IFILL: Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, thank you very much.

SEN. BEN CARDIN: Thank you.