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Sotomayor Pledges ‘Fidelity to the Law’ as Hearings Begin

July 13, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The Senate Judiciary Committee launched hearings Monday on Judge Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court. The National Law Journal's Marcia Coyle offers insight.
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JIM LEHRER: Confirmation hearings opened today for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. The federal appeals judge appeared for the first of several days before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman has our lead story report.

KWAME HOLMAN: Judge Sotomayor entered Room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building shortly before 10 o’clock this morning. She’d been waiting since late May, when President Obama named her to replace Justice David Souter, who retired last month.

Most of this first day was given over to opening statements from committee members. Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont went first with praise echoed by other Democrats.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), Vermont: We’re a country bound together by our magnificent Constitution. It guarantees the promise that our country will be a country based on the rule of law. In her service as a federal judge, Sonia Sotomayor has kept faith with that promise.

And, Judge, I remember so well, you sat in my office, and you said that, ultimately and completely, a judge has to follow the law, no matter what their upbringing has been. That’s the kind of fair and impartial judging the American people expect. That’s respect for the rule of law. That’s the kind of judge Judge Sotomayor has been. That’s the kind of fair and impartial justice she’ll be and the American people deserve.

KWAME HOLMAN: If confirmed by the full Senate, Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic and the third woman to serve on the high court.

But the committee’s top Republican, Alabama’s Jeff Sessions, warned Sotomayor might let her background influence her rulings. He cited past statements, such as her oft-quoted hope that a wise Latina woman might render better judgment.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), Alabama: I will not vote for and no senator should vote for an individual nominated by any president who believes it is acceptable for a judge to allow their personal background, gender, prejudices, or sympathies to sway their decision in favor of or against parties before the court.

In my view, such a philosophy is disqualifying. Such an approach to judging means that the umpire calling the game is not neutral, but instead feels empowered to favor one team over another. Call it empathy, call it prejudice, or call it sympathy, but whatever it is, it’s not law. In truth, it’s more akin to politics, and politics has no place in the courtroom.

KWAME HOLMAN: Sessions spoke as a former federal prosecutor and unsuccessful nominee for the federal bench, and other Republicans returned to his line of criticism time and again.

SEN. JON KYL (R), Arizona: We can’t simply brush aside her extrajudicial statements. Until now, Judge Sotomayor has been operating under the restraining influence of a higher authority, the Supreme Court. If confirmed, there will be no such restraint that would prevent her from, to paraphrase President Obama, deciding cases based on her heartfelt views.

Before we can faithfully discharge our duty to advice and consent, we must be confident that Judge Sotomayor is absolutely committed to setting aside her biases and impartially deciding cases based on the rule of law.

KWAME HOLMAN: For her part, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein contended Sotomayor’s presence on the court would only make it better.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), California: I do not believe that Supreme Court justices are merely umpires calling balls and strikes. Rather, I believe that they make the decisions of individuals who bring to the court their own experiences and philosophies.

Judge Sotomayor, I believe you are a warm and intelligent woman. I believe you are well studied and experienced in the law, with some 17 years of federal court experience involving 3,000 appeals and 450 trial cases.

So I believe you, too, will bring your experiences and philosophy to this highest court, and I believe that will do only one thing, and that is strengthen this high institution of our great country.

KWAME HOLMAN: The hearing was interrupted several times by anti-abortion protesters, who were quickly removed by Capitol police.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: The Senate — the police will remove that man.

KWAME HOLMAN: And despite the opposition by some to Sotomayor’s nomination, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham told the judge her chances looked pretty good.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), South Carolina: Unless you have a complete meltdown, you’re going to get confirmed.

KWAME HOLMAN: Graham also left open the possibility that he could support the nominee.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: President Obama won the election, and I will respect that. But when he was here, he set in motion a standard, I thought, that was more about seeking the presidency than being fair to the nominee.

When he said the critical ingredient is supplied by what is in the judge’s heart, translated, that means, “I’m not going to vote against my base, because I’m running for president.”

We’ve got a chance to start over. I hope we’ll take that chance and you will be asked hard questions, and I think you expect that. The question for me is, have you earned the right to be here?

And if I give you this robe to put you on the Supreme Court, do I believe at the end of the day that you will do what you think is best, that you have courage and that you will be fair? Come Thursday, I think I’ll know more about that.

KWAME HOLMAN: The committee broke at midday and soon completed opening statements from each member. Then, all eyes here turned to Judge Sotomayor. Finally, seven weeks after she was nominated, the country would get its first chance to see and hear from her on an extended basis.

Sotomayor addresses the committee

Sonia Sotomayor
Supreme Court nominee
On her own, my mother raised my brother and me. She taught us that the key to success in America is a good education. And she set the example.

JUDGE SONIA SOTOMAYOR, Supreme Court Justice Nominee: In recent weeks, I have had the privilege and pleasure of meeting 89 senators, including all of the members of this committee. Each of you has been gracious to me, and I have so much enjoyed meeting you. Our meetings have given me an illuminating tour of the 50 states and invaluable insights into the American people.

There are countless family members and friends who have done so much over the years to make this day possible. I am deeply appreciative for their love and support.

I want to make one special note of thanks to my mother. I am here, as many of you have noted, because of her aspirations and sacrifices for both my brother, Juan, and me.

I am very grateful to the president and humbled to be here today as a nominee to the United States Supreme Court.

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 9 years old.

On her own, my mother raised my brother and me. She taught us that the key to success in America is a good education. And she set the example, studying alongside my brother and me at our kitchen table so that she could become a registered nurse.

We worked hard. I poured myself into my studies at Cardinal Spellman High School, earning scholarships to Princeton University and then Yale Law School, while my brother went on to medical school. Our achievements are due to the values that we learned as children, and they have continued to guide my life's endeavors. I try to pass on this legacy by serving as a mentor and friend to my many godchildren and to students of all backgrounds.

Over the past three decades, I have seen our judicial system from a number of different perspectives: as a big-city prosecutor, as a corporate litigator, as a trial judge, and as an appellate judge.

My first job after law school was as an assistant district attorney in New York. There, I saw children exploited and abused. I felt the pain and suffering of families torn apart by the needless death of loved ones. I saw and learned the tough job law enforcement has in protecting the public.

In my next legal job, I focused on commercial, instead of criminal, matters. I litigated issues on behalf of national and international businesses and advised them on matters ranging from contracts to trademarks.

Shift to career as a judge

Sonia Sotomayor
Supreme Court nominee
In the past month, many senators have asked me about my judicial philosophy. Simple: fidelity to the law.

JUDGE SONIA SOTOMAYOR: My career as an advocate ended -- and my career as a judge began -- when I was appointed by President George H.W. Bush to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. As a trial judge, I did decide over 450 cases and presided over dozens of trials, with perhaps my most famous case being the Major League Baseball strike in 1995.

After six extraordinary years on the district court, I was appointed by President Clinton to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. On that court, I have enjoyed the benefit of sharing ideas and perspectives with wonderful colleagues, as we have worked together to resolve the issues before us. I have now served as an appellate judge for over a decade, deciding a wide range of constitutional, statutory, and other legal questions.

Throughout my 17 years on the bench, I have witnessed the human consequences of my decisions. Those decisions have not been made 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. Simple: fidelity to the law. The task of a judge is not to make law; it is to apply the law.

And it is clear, I believe, that my record in two courts reflects my rigorous commitment to interpreting the Constitution according to its terms, interpreting statutes according to their terms and Congress's intent, and hewing faithfully to precedents established by the Supreme Court and my circuit court. In each case I have heard, I have applied the law to the facts at hand.

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 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 judicial system. My personal and professional experiences help me to listen and understand, with the law always commanding the result in every case.

Since President Obama announced my nomination in May, I have received letters from people all over this country. Many tell a unique story of hope in spite of struggles. Each letter has deeply touched me. Each reflects a belief in the dream that led my parents to come to New York all those years ago. It is our Constitution that makes that dream possible, and I now seek the honor of upholding the Constitution as a justice on the Supreme Court.

Senators, I look forward in the next few days to answering your questions, to having the American people learn more about me, and to being part of a process that reflects the greatness of our Constitution and of our nation.

KWAME HOLMAN: Her seven-and-a-half-minute statement ended the hearing for today. Tomorrow morning, the Judiciary Committee begins its questioning of Judge Sotomayor.

Few surprises as debate is framed

Marcia Coyle
National Law Journal
And that's not to say that the Democrats also don't have some issues, not so much with her, but they have real concerns about certain areas of the law, like the environment, criminal law, sentencing.

JIM LEHRER: Judy Woodruff is anchoring our live coverage of the hearings. She talked to Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal after today's session concluded.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal, you're with me today as we watched these hearings. We knew -- really weren't many surprises today, because almost every member of the committee, Judge Sotomayor herself read prepared statements. So what was the real significance of today?

MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal: Well, Judy, I think whether you use the cliche framing the debate, setting the stage, whatever, that's exactly really what happened today.

Both political parties wanted to set out their concerns, their issues. They're hoping to set a tone for what's coming in the next few days, the questioning of Judge Sotomayor. And we saw that in the opening statements.

On the Democratic side, I would sum it up as saying to the American public: This is a nominee who has no bias, no activism. They're stressing in their opening statements her record, her decisions, how they fit within the mainstream of all judges.

On the Republican side, they wanted to stress activism and bias. They're very concerned about statements she has made in which she seems to reflect a certain amount of sympathy for particular types of litigants in cases.

And they have the issues, issues related to some of her decisions, issues like property rights, somewhat abortion, although she really hasn't ruled much on that, affirmative action, race discrimination, civil rights cases. So that's what we're going to see the questions focusing on.

And that's not to say that the Democrats also don't have some issues, not so much with her, but they have real concerns about certain areas of the law, like the environment, criminal law, sentencing. And we're going to be seeing questions relating to those areas, as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You know, Marcia, listening to the Republicans, there was a sense that they're as interested in what she's had to say in some of the many speeches she's given over the years as they are in what she's written or ruled in her opinions.

MARCIA COYLE: I thought that came across more strongly than some of the individual cases that they've talked about prior to the hearings. In just about every opening statement by a Republican member of the committee, they spoke about the "wise Latina" comment she made, talking about the richness of a wise Latina woman's experience in making a decision, also a statement she made about appellate courts making policy.

And I fully expect they're going to press her on those statements. And I also fully expect she's going to respond to them.

Taking stock of the current court

Marcia Coyle
National Law Journal
Just about every confirmation hearing also focuses on the Supreme Court itself and the direction the court is taking.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You were alluding to this just a minute ago, but I think it's pretty clear, as you said from listening to the Democrats, that we are going to be hearing about the current Supreme Court, the John Roberts Supreme Court a good deal over the next few days.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, these hearings aren't just about Judge Sotomayor. Just about every confirmation hearing also focuses on the Supreme Court itself and the direction the court is taking. Both Republicans and Democrats have a clear vision of where they want the court to go, and we're going to see criticism, as well as support, for some of the decisions, the recent decisions of the Supreme Court.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about Judge Sotomayor's statement itself? It was brief. It was -- I don't know how many -- just a few minutes long. What struck you in what she had to say?

MARCIA COYLE: I think she began to try to explain or address some of the comments that were made in the opening statements. When she was asked, she said, by senators, when she visited them, what is your judicial philosophy? She said in her opening statement today, It's simple: Fidelity to the law.

And I think that was an attempt to reassure them that this is not an activist judge. And then she also made a statement about how important it is and how it enhances judging to be able to understand and know what the different situations and perspectives are of the parties before her so that she can then begin to apply the law to the situation before her. And I think that was an attempt to address the criticism that she has too much empathy in her judging.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Marcia, what about those who say, well, it really doesn't matter that much if she's confirmed to the Supreme Court because she's replacing someone, Justice Souter, whose philosophy is similar in effect to what President Obama's is, but you're not going to really see a change in the direction of the court?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, I've always thought that that was not a true statement. I think every new justice has an impact on the dynamics of the Supreme Court.

There are cases -- and we saw one in particular this past term -- in which Justice Souter did not march in lock step with the other three moderate liberals on the bench. And she may have a very different view, particularly in the area of criminal law, where she's been a big-city prosecutor, to rule differently from the way he has.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, Marcia, what are you looking for over the next couple of days?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, I'm looking for two things, Judy. I want to get some measure of her as a human being. I want to hear how she articulates her answers, how she holds up under maybe some tense questioning. What's her temperament like? I don't know much about her as a person.

And then I also want to learn about her views, her substantive views, how she handles some very difficult legal questions. How broad is her knowledge of the law and the Constitution?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal, and we'll be back here tomorrow.

MARCIA COYLE: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: And Judy and Marcia will answer your questions during breaks in the live Senate hearings this week. To participate, go to our Web site, newshour.pbs.org, or send a question to the NewsHour's Twitter account. That's twitter.com/NewsHour.