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Sotomayor Pledges ‘Fidelity to the Law’ as Hearings Begin

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.