Politics

The Judge's Long First Day

 

BY TRISH TURNER
Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor is in for a long day Tuesday with a lot of walking in marble halls, hand shaking, perfunctory greetings for cameras, her introductory day on Capitol Hill making courtesy calls to Senate leadership and the Judiciary Committee members who will first sit in judgment of the judge who would be the next Supreme Court justice.

All in all, there are nine meetings, with the New York delegation pairing up for lunch with their fellow home state star. This must be some kind of record.

She will begin her day in friendly territory with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, who President Obama recently said shared the nominee's Horatio Alger life story.  Reid lost his hardrock miner father at an early age and was raised by a mother who had to work overtime to provide.  They both grew up on the "other side of the tracks," as they say, though Sotomayor's went through the Bronx and Reid's through dusty, rural Searchlight, Nevada. 

After the morning meeting with Reid, Sotomayor heads across the street from the U.S. Capitol to the Russell Senate office of Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-VT, where she will no doubt be subjected to the senator's mini-tour of the pictures he has personally taken that adorn the walls of his Ralph Lauren-hued suite and his computer screen.

Leahy is an avid photographer and quite good at it. He loves to talk the ear off guests about his photos.  His recent congressional trip to the Middle East ought to make for some interesting food for fodder, the niceties exchanged while a horde of journalists and cameramen look on, trying to pick up morsels of information and the perfect pictures in the mere moments they are allowed inside the room.

This is called the "photo op" folks, and they are awkward. What do you say? Many times, the member and the nominee grin uncomfortably as flash bulbs fire and some reporter tries to ask a question that is never answered. With Samuel Alito, everyone seemed to talk about baseball, as Alito was an extreme fan of the sport, attending a Phillies fantasy camp once.  Actually, Sotomayor "saved baseball," according to President Obama, when she quickly put an end to the 1995 baseball strike. So, maybe that's a good topic. Reports have indicated that she's actually an avid fan, as well, and still goes to games with friends. Batter up!

Her first trip across the proverbial aisle (it's techincally one floor down) will be to meet with Sen. Jeff Sessions, top Republican on the committee, for her first face to face with the opposition.  And from the sound of it, she has some explaining to do.

The Alabama Republican, this Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press, said he is troubled by comments she made related to her Latina heritage that might point to bias in her judgment.  Sessions said that "the entire concept of the American rule of law is blindfolded justice, that the judge sets aside their personal and political and biases of any kind and gives an objective ruling on the law and on the facts."

The root of the controversy is a speech Sotomayor made in 2001 at the University of California, Berkley, in which she said, "The aspiration to impartiality is just that - it's an aspiration because it denies the fact that we are by our experiences making different choices than others.  Justice O'Connor has often been cited as saying that wise old men and wise old -- and a wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases.  I am not so sure that I agree with the statement.  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 wasn't lived that life."

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh and former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich have called her racist for the comments, but Senate Republicans have stayed as far away from that radioactive environment as possible, with Sessions saying Sunday, "I would not use those words...I don't think that's an appropriate description of her."

After Sessions, she heads to lunch in the Hart Senate office building with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY (whether that's friendly territory, well, we'll leave it to those who have dined with the senator to judge). Schumer will be joined by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, also a Democrat, a lunch of New Yorkers.  No doubt reporters will hear about how the senatorial duo recommended Sotomayor to the President.

Schumer is one of three senators tapped by the White House to help steer the nomination through the Senate, a so-called "sherpa."  He is not like the traditional "sherpa" for a justice, like former Sen. , was previously.  That person sticks to the nominee like glue and goes to and in every meeting that is taken.  But Schumer has been sticking to the airwaves like glue with near daily appearances to defend Sotomayor's positions, since, as tradition has it, the nominee says nothing until confirmation. No slip up's.

On that note, Leahy threatened this weekend to set the confirmation hearings early, if Sotomayor's critics continue their rough language, like calling her a racist. The chairman warned, "I'll tell you one thing that...is going to influence the timing of when I will set this hearing is all these attacks are going out against her, she can't answer them. As a judge, she has to sit back there; some of the most vicious attacks, being called bigoted, calling her racist, saying that no Republican should be allowed to vote for her.  I intend to give her an opportunity as soon as possible to answer those."
 
But Republicans seem set on pushing the hearings until after the August recess, which ends after the first week in September. That would technically leave enough time to get Sotomayor to the Court, should she be confirmed, by the start of the new session (Oct. 5), but she would not be able to participate in the September decision-making process where justices select which cases they will hear.

Back to the meetings.

After lunch, the judge heads back into stormy seas, as she hits the midpoint of her day, for a meeting with the Senate's top Republican, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY.

The leader, who voted against Sotomayor's confirmation in 1998 to the circuit court, served up a warning today on the Senate floor, saying, "Many of the same concerns I had about Judge Sotomayor eleven years ago persist...Americans expect and should receive equal treatment under the law," he said, adding, "Lawmakers make law, and they have to answer for those laws every two or six years to the voters. Federal judges, on the other hand, never have to face the voters, and thus aren't supposed to make policy."

She then takes a meeting with McConnell's number two, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-AZ, who has maintained a low profile on Sotomayor. He's usually a tough audience for nominees, though. He does his homework and is a firm questioner.

Kyl, like McConnell, voted against Sotomayor in 1998, but says this time around, the slate is clean. But don't look for the temperamental Arizonan to talk to reporters. He likes to keep his powder dry until the hearings. 

Sotomayor then will traverse the ornate Ohio Clock corridor, a short walk just off the Senate floor, to meet with Kyl's Democratic counterpart, Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-IL, an uber-Obama ally.  Should be smooth sailing.

Both Kyl and Durbin are on the Judiciary Committee, a 19-member panel with Republicans occupying just seven of those seats, making it clear, Sotomayor will have no trouble getting approved there.

Sotomayor heads to her first solo meeting with a woman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA.  On CBS's Face the Nation, the senator, a 16-year member of the Judiciary Committee, defended Sotomayor's comment that appellate court justices make policy, saying, "If there is no precedent, judges do make policy. If there is no precedent, an appellate court judge will, in effect, by their opinion, make policy." Critics often cite this Sotomayor statement as proof that she is an activist judge.

Utah's Orrin Hatch, the longest serving Republican on the Judiciary Committee, will finish out the day with the nominee. Hatch voted to confirm Sotomayor in 1998 to her current post, but he has voiced concern that the judge has turned out to be an activist, citing the "policy" statement as one example.  But, he says, he will give Sotomayor a chance to explain.

Unlike Hatch, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-KS, said Thursday he has already made up his mind. He announced he would be voting against confirmation, becoming the first Republican to explicitly state his opposition.

"She has made statements on the role of the appeals court I think is improper and incorrect," Roberts said. "I think that we should be judging people not on race and gender, or background or ethnicity or a very compelling story."