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Sotomayor Confirmation Hearings Gear Up

July 10, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Senate confirmation hearings begin Monday for Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court. Kwame Holman reports.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, next week’s confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman has our preview.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Judiciary Committee will meet in this Senate hearing room Monday to culminate weeks of scrutiny of the personal and professional background of Judge Sonia Sotomayor. It began in May when President Obama nominated her to the Supreme Court.

BARACK OBAMA, U.S., President: Walking in the door, she would bring more experience on the bench and more varied experience on the bench than anyone currently serving on the United States Supreme Court had when they were appointed.

KWAME HOLMAN: By now, Sotomayor’s biography is familiar: Born to Puerto Rican parents and raised in a South Bronx housing project by her widowed mother, she graduated with high honors from Princeton University and was a member of the Law Review at Yale Law School.

She has served as a New York prosecutor, a trial judge, and an appellate court judge, and would be the first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court.

White House officials and Senate Democrats have portrayed Sotomayor as a moderate jurist.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Senate majority leader: She respects the rule of law. That’s what our judicial system is all about, our system of justice. She deserves a fair and impartial hearing.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Republicans remain skeptical.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), Senate Minority Leader: Is she allowing her personal or political agenda to cloud her judgment and favor one group of individuals over another, regardless of what the law says?

KWAME HOLMAN: Recent polling suggests a narrow majority of Americans view Sotomayor favorably, although opinions tend to break along party lines.

Amy Walter is editor-in-chief of the Hotline, National Journal’s political daily.

AMY WALTER, editor-in-chief, The Hotline: If you’re a Republican, you are likely to oppose her nomination or feel unfavorably about her. If you’re a Democrat, you feel favorably toward her and would like to see her get confirmed. That has much more to do with your feelings about President Obama, the person who actually appointed her, than Sotomayor herself.

TOM GOLDSTEIN, Scotusblog.com: She seems thoughtful, thorough, careful, but not a bomb-thrower on either side.

Sotomayor's record to be questioned

KWAME HOLMAN: Supreme Court advocate and Scotusblog founder Tom Goldstein says there's not much to attack in Sotomayor's record.

TOM GOLDSTEIN: There's been more than a month to look into her record, and people who've been trying very hard to find a ground to derail her seem to have come up pretty empty.

KWAME HOLMAN: Nevertheless, Goldstein says Republicans will have some ammunition next week.

TOM GOLDSTEIN: Republicans, in questioning Judge Sotomayor, in making their speeches, are going to look for issues that resonate with the public that don't make it look like they're just badgering her. And so we're talking about the firefighters in the New Haven case. We're talking about property rights. We're talking about gun rights, which are broadly popular, and then just sort of the remarks that she's made that have been plucked from a speech here or a panel there.

KWAME HOLMAN: The New Haven, Connecticut, firefighters case was argued before the Supreme Court in April. A group of white and Hispanic firefighters appealed a lower court decision that New Haven could throw out the results of a promotions exam because too few minorities qualified. Judge Sotomayor signed on to that opinion.

The justices last week reversed the lower court, and Republicans charged it was a rebuke of Sotomayor's judicial philosophy. They've called one of the firefighters to testify at next week's hearings.

Alabama's Jeff Sessions is the Judiciary Committee's top Republican.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), Alabama: I think she made a mistake on that case. When you render an opinion that says an objective, planned test, procedure should be thrown out because there, as a matter of results, that a group of people of one race did not do as well as others, this is a very dangerous thing.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Democratic Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont disagrees.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), Vermont: She was following what the Supreme Court had said up until that time. Had she voted otherwise, then she would have fallen into this category that they say they don't want, of activist judges, because she would have ruled contrary to what the Supreme Court precedent was.

TOM GOLDSTEIN: There's some truth in that.

KWAME HOLMAN: Goldstein says Sotomayor's role in the case is more ambiguous.

TOM GOLDSTEIN: Settled law really was against the plaintiff firefighters. On the other hand, it's pretty darn clear from Judge Sotomayor's record that she would have come out this way, anyway.

Conservatives seize on comments

KWAME HOLMAN: Republicans also cite a speech Sotomayor made in 2001 at the University of California at Berkeley. In it, she said, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

Conservatives seized on the comment.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: She's accepting something less, I think, in that speech than an absolute commitment to do everything possible to make sure that, when you rule on a case, these extraneous personal histories that you may have as a judge are not going to infect how you decide the legitimate dispute that's before you.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Chairman Leahy says Sotomayor clarified herself in a recent private meeting.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: What she said was, Yes, our backgrounds shape who we are. My background shapes who I am. Everybody's background does. But she says, ultimately and completely -- she used those words, "ultimately and completely" -- the law is what controls, no matter what your bac. kground is.

KWAME HOLMAN: Republicans also questioned Sotomayor's involvement with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. She served on the board of the civil rights group, now known as Latino Justice, before becoming a federal judge.

But even as they raise criticisms, Republicans face the political reality of their diminished numbers in the Senate overall and on the committee itself.

JOSEPH BIDEN, Vice President of the United States: Raise your right hand, please.

Democrats tip the scales

KWAME HOLMAN: With the swearing-in of Al Franken as Minnesota's new senator, Democrats achieved a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority, although ailing Senators Edward Kennedy and Robert Byrd remain absent. Franken will serve on the Judiciary Committee, where Democrats hold a 12-to-7 advantage.

Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, who defected from the Republican Party earlier this year, also will question Sotomayor as a Democrat.

That partisan breakdown is a major difference between Sotomayor's nomination and the last two Supreme Court confirmation battles over Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, says Scotusblog's Tom Goldstein.

TOM GOLDSTEIN: The last two confirmations -- in fact, the last several confirmations -- have been more hard-fought. There was a realistic prospect because of the combination of the judge's record and the balance in the Senate that they might be stopped or at least filibustered. Here, it just doesn't add up.

KWAME HOLMAN: Hotline's Walter also points to the justice Sotomayor would succeed, David Souter.

AMY WALTER: She is replacing somebody who is already a liberal vote, so it's not going to change the 5-4 breakdown in the same way that if, for example, a conservative had left the bench. So for Republicans who recognize that they have to save their powder for other fights, this may not be the one to use it on.

KWAME HOLMAN: And Democrats have one more advantage: an earlier start to the next Supreme Court term. The justices will rehear a crucial campaign finance case in September, rather than starting on the traditional first Monday in October. That may add momentum to Democrats' push for a final Senate vote on Judge Sotomayor before the August congressional recess.

JIM LEHRER: Judy Woodruff will anchor our live coverage of Judge Sotomayor's confirmation hearings on many PBS stations starting at 10 a.m. on Monday. You can also watch the hearings live on our Web site at newshour.pbs.org.