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Lawmakers Push Sotomayor for Views on Critical Issues

July 15, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Sonia Sotomayor faced new questioning from lawmakers Wednesday. Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Patrick Leahy and Sen. Charles Grassley give their take on the hearings.
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JIM LEHRER: And now for their take on Judge Sotomayor’s testimony so far, two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee: the Democratic chairman, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, and Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa.

First, Senator Leahy, I assume you still personally favor the confirmation of Judge Sotomayor?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), Vermont: I do. The Supreme Court’s going to come in for an extraordinary hearing, a very unusual hearing in September. She will be on the Supreme Court when they come in.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Grassley, where do you stand right now?

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R), Iowa: Well, I stand where I stand on most nominees. I wait until the hearing is over. Otherwise, there’s no point in participating in a hearing if you’ve already got your mind made up.

And I’m not criticizing Senator Leahy for his saying that he would vote for her, but I think I have a responsibility to review the whole record. We still have two other panels that are going to present. I don’t expect them to distract very much, if at all, from her hearings, but I think we ought to review the whole record. And we’ll probably have a week or 10 days to do that before she comes up on the floor or even before our committee.

JIM LEHRER: Have you heard anything — yes, go ahead.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: I was going to say, I’d agree with Chuck Grassley that we should review her whole record, but here’s a woman who’s been involved in 3,000 cases. She’s had more extensive record, both as a trial judge and a court of appeals judge, than any nominee, Democratic or Republican, for over 50 years.

That’s where her record is. And all that’s been available to every single senator to read. So far, those 3,000 cases, I think she’s only been asked about a dozen or so, and over and over and over again.

I’ve read the cases. I’ve listened to her answers in those dozen or so cases she’s been questioned about. As a lawyer, I have a pretty easy job making up my mind.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: Can I add to what he said?

JIM LEHRER: Yes, sir.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: Just in case I left an impression of her qualifications to be on the Supreme Court, the academic ones, her career on the court for over a decade, her being a prosecutor and a private-sector lawyer, I don’t think anybody’s raised any questions about her qualifications.

There’s been distraction from her legal jurisprudence by speeches she’s given that have raised some concerns. The president raised some of these concerns initially among some of us because of the word “empathy.”

And, quite frankly, all we’re trying to do is satisfy ourselves that, as a justice, she’s not going to be making decisions as an activist judge based upon these speeches, but upon the precedent that the court set or to what extent would she change precedent.

Judging Sotomayor's words

Sen. Charles Grassley
R-Iowa
I think she -- right out of the gate, in her opening speech, where she said about fidelity to the law, I think that ought to satisfy a lot of people. She's backed that up.

JIM LEHRER: Have you heard anything, Senator Grassley, in the hearings themselves, from the mouth of Judge Sotomayor, that causes you to lean one way or another? Did you hear something that has affected your view? Let's put it that way.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: I think she -- right out of the gate, in her opening speech, where she said about fidelity to the law, I think that ought to satisfy a lot of people. She's backed that up.

You know, it's obviously going to leave some questions in people's minds -- maybe to some extent, mine -- whether or not this is a -- you know, a conversion at the last minute, pandering to the Senate.

If she's an intellectually honest woman -- and I don't have any reason to believe she's not -- you know, then these are all satisfying things at this point.

And you asked me, have I had minds changed? Over the course of meeting her privately, in my office, over the course of this hearing, I can say that she's a lot different than the attitude -- and positively so -- a lot different than the attitude you have from reading her statements in the abstract or hearing other people comment on those.

JIM LEHRER: And, Senator Leahy, I assume, then, that what you have heard has just made your feelings -- your positive feelings about her even stronger. Is that correct?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: It's made the feelings even stronger. We've heard a lot of outside people. We've heard one of their leaders in the Republican Party call her the equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan, another called her a bigot. To the credit of the Republican senators, none of them have used those terms. I think they know those are way out of the ballpark.

So I have a rule. I will not meet with pressure groups of either the right or the left when we have a Supreme Court nominee. I make up my mind based on what I've read about them and what I hear in the meeting.

I took all her major cases with me to Vermont during the Fourth of July. I've read them at my home there. I've studied them. I've talked with her at length on several occasions. That's what I make my mind up on.

Party-line questioning

Sen. Patrick Leahy
D-Vermont
But I haven't found anything wrong in the questions that have been asked, whether by Senator Grassley or anybody else. I think some of them have been asked several times, but I have no problem with the questions the Republicans have asked.

JIM LEHRER: Well, Senator Leahy, let me ask you this. Even to a casual observer who's just barely watching these hearings and paying just kind of mild attention to these hearings, it's very clear that you and all the Democrats came in to support Judge Sotomayor. Most of the questions have been supportive.

You, Senator Grassley, you and your fellow Republicans have either declared questions, serious questions, and it's been strictly by party. Is that what's going on here, Senator Leahy, this is a division of party rather than about any legal issue?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Well, I think that the -- as I said, a couple of the leaders of the Republican Party said right almost from the very first day that she was going to...

JIM LEHRER: No, I mean the Senate. I'm talking about the Senate.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: No, no. But I think it influenced some of this, and I think a lot of people feel they've got to respond to that.

But I haven't found anything wrong in the questions that have been asked, whether by Senator Grassley or anybody else. I think some of them have been asked several times, but I have no problem with the questions the Republicans have asked.

Democrats have asked some very specific questions on antitrust, on what kind of respect should be given to laws written by Congress.

But, yes, I think a lot of us have looked at her record. We see this as a good, mainstream judge. As a former prosecutor, I looked at her record as a prosecutor, too. I don't have a problem with her.

But I think the questions have been asked. They were able to ask those questions. They were tough questions. And I will predict that a number of Republicans will vote for her when the matter comes to a vote.

Continued partisanship

Sen. Charles Grassley
R-Iowa
I'm sure there will be [Republicans who vote for her], because, based on the fact that I haven't heard any Republican yet that said they were going to vote against her.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Senator Grassley? There will be Republicans who will vote for her?

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: I'm sure there will be, because, based on the fact that I haven't heard any Republican yet that said they were going to vote against her -- I guess maybe I should back up. There has been one or two that have spoken to the press that maybe they wouldn't vote for her. I don't think they're people on our committee that I'm referring to.

I have voted from 12 people to the Supreme Court that have been nominees in the 28 years I've been in the United States Senate. And the only thing that I would say about this hearing, as you described it, Republicans on one side, Democrats on the other, seem to be asking different questions. In the last 10 years, there's been a change in the environment here that is influencing that.

And I'm one who has voted for Clinton's nominees, Ginsburg and Breyer, you know, because qualification at that time was the only thing. But within the last 10 years, with the Bush nominees, there's been a lot more partisanship than usual, and I think you're seeing that carried over into a new administration.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Grassley, let me ask you this. Some people have suggested underlying that is the abortion division, that any senator who is pro-choice tends to support Sotomayor, any senator who is pro-life, to use all the simple terms, tends to be against Sotomayor. Is that correct?

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: Well, it could turn out that way. I don't have any evidence to know that it will.

But understand that that's 2009. If you go back to '93, '94 and '95, whenever Breyer and Ginsburg was up, they're very pro-choice. And Republicans, including this one, voted for her.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Jim, if I could add to that, I think all senators would make a mistake if they base this just on the one question of abortion, whether you want to have abortion legal or those who want to make it illegal.

That's not the issue. Those are actually questions for a different forum. I've voted for hundreds, even thousands of judges at the district and court of appeals level and at the Supreme Court level nominated by Republican presidents. I have never allowed abortion to be the single issue.

There's an awful lot of issues involved besides that. And I think that becomes a -- that becomes almost a straw person. And it is -- a lot of people raise a lot of money based on the issue, on both the right and the left, but that's not the criteria.

Confirmation may be inevitable

Sen. Patrick Leahy
D-Vermont
The court is coming in September in an extraordinary session. She will be on the court when it comes in, in September.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Grassley, it was suggested today that now that you all are pretty much going through the motions, that you know how many Democrats there are in the Senate and how many Republicans there are, and what the leanings are, the hearings have gone a certain way, and it's just now a matter of time, and Sonia Sotomayor is going to be confirmed to the United States Supreme Court. Do you agree?

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: Well, if it's strictly on a partisan basis, obviously, or even if it's a bipartisan basis, with a lot of Republicans voting for her, or maybe all of the Republicans voting for her, I think numerically you can't say but what she's got a good chance of being approved.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Leahy, is it a...

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: I can't recall a Supreme Court nominee offhand that was voted strictly on a party-line vote.

JIM LEHRER: But, I mean, you thinks she's going to win?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Oh, yes. She'll win.

JIM LEHRER: She's going to be confirmed?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: The court is coming in September in an extraordinary session. She will be on the court when it comes in, in September.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Senators, thank you both very much.

And our hearing coverage will continue tomorrow, streamed live on our Web site, as well as here on most PBS stations. Judy Woodruff and Marcia Coyle are answering your questions during breaks in the proceedings. And to participate, you can go to newshour.pbs.org or you can send a question to the NewsHour's Twitter account. That's twitter.com/newshour.