WASHINGTON — Don't expect a lot of fireworks from the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday as it begins hearing testimony on whether Sonia Sotomayor should be the next Supreme Court justice.
"My bet is that we'll see a relatively dignified hearing," said Christopher Eisgruber, Princeton University provost and author of "The Next Justice: Repairing the Supreme Court Appointment Process."
"There will certainly be partisan politics all through it," he said, "but it seems almost certain Judge Sotomayor will be confirmed."
The 55-year-old federal appellate judge, bidding to become the first Hispanic to sit on the court, has much in her favor:
She has a lengthy judicial record, was first nominated by a Republican president (George H. W. Bush, who last month told CNN she had a "distinguished record on the bench") and has received strong endorsements from respected legal and law enforcement groups. What's more, senators can score political points by embracing her.
"There's no point in having a huge battle with the first Hispanic nominee," said Susan Low Bloch, Georgetown University professor of law.
The hearing is expected to last all week. It will begin Monday morning, when Sotomayor, a native of the Bronx, will be introduced by New York's U.S. senators. The 19 committee members, 12 Democrats and seven Republicans, are then scheduled to each make 10 minute opening statements. Those will provide clues to the tone and substance of the questioning to come.
Sotomayor will then make her own opening statement, probably in mid-afternoon. Senators will begin questioning her Tuesday; and each member will get 30 minutes. Once that's done, probably Wednesday, American Bar Association officials will explain why Sotomayor won their "well qualified" rating.
Next will come a long list of witnesses called by committee members. Among the notables: For Democrats, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Major League baseball pitcher David Cone (Sotomayor was instrumental in ending baseball's 1994-95 strike) and former FBI Director Louis Freeh.
Republicans plan to call Frank Ricci, whose bid for a New Haven Fire Department promotion became a celebrated Supreme Court case, U.S. civil rights commissioner Peter Kirsanow, and longtime conservative activist Linda Chavez.
The committee's chairman, Vermont's Patrick Leahy, is known for being outspoken and for his liberal voting record. Leahy has vowed that the hearings not only will air all the issues but also send a signal to the American people about the rule of law, which he says was "damaged" during the Bush administration by the creation of secret CIA prisons, the failure to provide due process to prisoners at Guantanamo, and harsh interrogation practices.
"Only 101 people get the final say in who's going to be on the Supreme Court," Leahy said, "and we stand as the conscience of the nation in doing that."
Democrats are seen as eager to explore Sotomayor's record and establish her judicial gravitas and temperament, but many are leaving little doubt where they stand. "All systems are go," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "She's a slam dunk."
Few Republicans are expressing outright opposition, but they have promised tough questioning on some key issues.
The top Republican on the committee is Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama. Sessions' ascension to that spot earlier this year completed a political comeback of sorts. In 1986, the same judiciary committee, then controlled by Republicans, rejected Sessions' nomination for a federal judgeship after he was accused of making racially insensitive comments.
Sessions, who's gained the respect of his colleagues over the years, says he's particularly sensitive to the impact of personal attacks. "I know how a nominee can be unfairly abused, and not have a good opportunity to rebut," he said.
Sessions is expected to quiz Sotomayor on the president's desire for judges who show "empathy" on the bench.
"I think this is a dangerous departure from the most fundamental pillar of our judicial system, judicial impartiality," Sessions said. "That's why judges are given lifetime appointments — they're supposed to be unbiased. Whatever this new empathy standard is, it is not law."
One of the most closely watched Republicans will be Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who's also chairman of the party's senatorial campaign committee. Hispanics are the largest ethnic group in Texas.
"I don't think we've seen the whole picture yet," he said.
Among the issues he wants to explore is what he calls "her commitment to color blind justice." Skeptics have been concerned about her 2001 comment about how a "wise Latina woman" could reach "a better conclusion than a white man."
And they want to know more about why she and two others judges on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Ricci, the white New Haven firefighter who was denied a promotion despite high test scores. The Supreme Court overturned that decision in a 5 to 4 decision last month.
"Many average Americans can associate themselves with Ricci," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
But he will not rule out voting for Sotomayor. "I want to see whether she has judicial temperament, and how active she may be," Graham said.
Republicans face a political problem. Eisgruber figured they can pursue one of two strategies: Appeal to their conservative base by aggressively attacking the nominee, or, knowing Sotomayor is likely to get confirmed, ask questions and make statements that lay the groundwork for the next justice.
The second path seems more likely, for another reason: Republicans for years have been aggressively courting Hispanic votes — Bush in 2004 won an estimated 44 percent of the Latino vote — and going after a nominee who appears qualified could become a huge political liability.
Cornyn denies any such motivation. "This is not about ethnicity," he said. "This is not about sex, race; it's about the temperament of a judicial nominee."
Nonetheless, said Georgetown's Bloch, "It can only hurt to be real, real tough on her."
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