Sotomayor hearings offer lessons for future nominees

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 17, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Republicans spent four days this week repeating a stern message to President Barack Obama: Your future Supreme Court nominees will be grilled about their personal views and examined thoroughly for any hint of liberal bias.

Sonia Sotomayor, the federal appellate judge seeking to become the high court's first Hispanic justice, however, was sending her own message to presidents and future nominees alike: Keep answers general, stay likable and avoid offering personal views on anything — even including your favorite baseball team.

The jurisprudential reticence can frustrate senators and court watchers alike. That doesn't mean the hearing is useless.

"It's very hard to get specific information about what a nominee thinks; it's scripted," acknowledged Olatunde Johnson, an associate professor at Columbia Law School, "but even with the hearing's shortcomings, it's still worthwhile to see how a nominee comports herself."

Watching a nominee under the lights, answering hundreds of questions, can help viewers glean an understanding of their mental discipline and physical stamina, Johnson said.

When it comes to detailed how-will-you-vote questions, though, reticence has one proven virtue: it apparently works. Sotomayor is considered a shoo-in for confirmation.

"We'll see what your future holds, but I think it's going to be pretty bright," Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told Sotomayor.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on Sotomayor's nomination by the end of July. A full Senate vote is likely during the week of Aug. 3.

On Friday, Republicans began crossing party lines to announce their support for the 55-year-old Yale Law School graduate, with Sens. Richard Lugar of Indiana, Mel Martinez of Florida and Olympia Snowe of Maine announcing their intentions to vote for Sotomayor. Politically, the only question now is how many GOP votes she will gain. Longer term, the political question becomes what lessons will endure from the Sotomayor nomination.

Some elements are unique to her nomination. As the first Latina nominee, she put in a bind those Republicans who want to oppose Obama but who don't want to alienate Hispanic voters. Part of the message Republicans had to send was respect for the nominee, even as they pressed her hard.

"There are messages being sent," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a senior committee member. "That's part of what these hearings do; they sent messages to the president."

Republican senators say their chief message to Obama was to be careful about sending up nominees who ooze "empathy" — a quality Obama once said he wanted in judges. The much-mocked word has since seemingly dropped from the president's judicial vocabulary.

Beyond the White House, Republican senators were sending messages to their base supporters. The message: We feel your pain. The GOP senators' insistent focus on three issues — abortion, gun rights and affirmative action — to the exclusion of almost all others showed their singular priorities.

For future nominees, the hearings that included Sotomayor's two-and-a-half days on the witness stand offered myriad lessons. These include:

_ Make personal connections. In the weeks before the hearings, Sotomayor visited 89 senators for private meetings of about half an hour each — yet only 19 senators serve on the judiciary panel. She wowed the Democrats and soothed the Republicans.

"I like you," Graham said.

At one point, Sotomayor told Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who spent two days asking tough questions about abortion and other issues, "I love that you're doing your job, and I love that I'm doing my job as a judge. I like mine better."

Coburn laughed. "I think I would like yours better as well."

_ Have a compelling life story. Sotomayor's rise from the Bronx, her overcoming obstacles such as juvenile diabetes and her professional accomplishments led Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse to enthuse that he had "goose bumps" just thinking about her.

_ No matter how liberal or conservative in general, be able to show you're tough on crime. Sotomayor's five years as a New York prosecutor proved immensely helpful in softening Republican fears. She was able to recount for senators how she prosecuted child pornography dealers and an infamous killer, thereby undermining a traditional conservative attack line.

"She took on every kind of criminal case that comes into an urban courthouse, from turnstile-jumping to homicide," said famed New York County District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, her former boss.

_ Don't predict how you might rule. Republicans tried over and over to pin her down and she refused to budge. On guns rights, business law, voting rights and other crucial issues, as well as on lesser issues such as televising court proceedings, Sotomayor avoided making commitments.

"I don't like making statements about what I think the court can do until I've experienced the process," Sotomayor said at one point.

The lesson for future nominees is clear, said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.

"The message is if you don't say very much, and agree with the questioners, and can wiggle off the main question — and you have the votes," he said, "you'll get confirmed."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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