Stage Is Set for Supreme Court Hearings

Stage Is Set for Supreme Court Hearings

By Kyle Trygstad - July 8, 2009

The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to begin questioning a nominee for the United States Supreme Court for the third time in four years. Hearings for Judge Sonia Sotomayor begin Monday, though backroom strategizing and public persuasion efforts have transpired for weeks.

Senate Democrats, led by Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (Vt.) and Charles Schumer (N.Y.), are pushing the message that Sotomayor, a former prosecutor and federal appellate judge, has the judicial experience and mainstream record to warrant confirmation. She would become the first Latina to sit on the Supreme Court after being nominated June 1 by the first African American to serve as president.

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Yesterday, representatives from nine national law enforcement organizations -- including the Fraternal Order of Police, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, and the National Sheriffs Association -- joined Leahy on Capitol Hill to announce their support for Sotomayor. Also, the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary voted unanimously to find Sotomayor "well qualified" -- the highest rating given to judicial nominees. John G. Roberts and Samuel Alito, who joined the Court in 2005 and 2006, were also unanimously given this rating.

"As many of the law enforcement leaders behind me can attest, Judge Sotomayor's criminal justice record on and off the bench is exemplary," said Leahy. "When the country hears from Judge Sotomayor next week at her confirmation hearing, I have no doubt it will agree ... that she is an impressive, qualified nominee to serve on the nation's highest court."

Furthering her tough-on-crime appearance, Leahy released the results of a study conducted by the committee's Democratic staff, which reviewed more than 800 cases appealed to her court and concluded she is a "traditional, consensus judge on criminal justice issues." While serving on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, Sotomayor affirmed 92 percent of criminal convictions and 90 percent of criminal sentences, the study found.

Schumer released a study last month that found Sotomayor had ruled against immigration petitioners at an equally high rate.

These endorsements and the general opinion that Sotomayor is qualified for the bench have made arguing against her nomination more difficult for Republicans. However, GOP members of the committee say they have plenty more to learn from the nominee.

Led by ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Republicans will question Sotomayor's out-of-court speeches and affiliations, her stance on the Second Amendment, and a ruling of hers recently overturned by the Supreme Court.

Sotomayor sat on an appeals panel that ruled in favor of New Haven, Connecticut's decision to not offer promotions to a group of mostly white firefighters after too few minorities passed a test. In Ricci v. DeStefano, the Supreme Court overturned the appeals court ruling last week and Republicans have called it a case of "reverse discrimination."

Republicans will look into one particular line Sotomayor repeatedly used in speeches over the years -- "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would, more often than not, reach a better conclusion."

Appearing on Fox News yesterday afternoon, Sessions was asked about that statement. "I think that is a matter that we need to inquire in," he said. "Will a person that is before her get a fair shake or not? And if you have empathy or favoritism or sympathy for one party, have you not bias for another? Those are the kinds of questions I think we need to look at."

Republicans are also awaiting more documents from a Puerto Rican legal organization called LatinoJustice PRLDEF, for which Sotomayor held a number of leadership positions from 1980 to 1992. While Republicans have questioned some of its work, Leahy called it "a mainstream civil rights organization."

Sessions indicated Monday that Republicans may use procedural tactics to delay next week's hearings, though he and other GOP senators were mum on whether they would attempt to delay a final vote until after the August recess.

"I think all this sort of setting artificial deadlines is a bad idea because there are all these things we don't know yet that could affect the need for more time or less time," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who sits on the Judiciary Committee. "So it's just too early to say."

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a member of the committee, told RealClearPolitics yesterday that he expects the hearings to start on time.

Should Republicans attempt any procedural delays, Leahy said the American public would ask what they are afraid of, and he requested GOP committee members treat Sotomayor with respect during the hearings -- something they have said they plan to do.

"It's not just Judge Sonia Sotomayor who is going to be watched by the American public, but the United States Senate," said Leahy. "Every senator has a right and responsibility to ask questions, good questions, tough questions. If they disagree with a response of a nominee, they have an absolute right to say so. But it should be done respectfully."

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Kyle Trygstad is a Washington correspondent for RealClearPolitics. Email him at: Follow him on Twitter @KyleTrygstad.

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