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All Eyes Focus On Sotomayor

Senate Hearings Begin Today

The Senate Judiciary Committee begins hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor today, but with her installment all but certain, Republicans are unlikely to put the nominee on trial.

Rather, GOP Senators will use the high-profile forum to make a case for the direction of the judiciary and to set out their definition of an ideal jurist.

For weeks, Judiciary ranking member Jeff Sessions (Ala.), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and a handful of other Republicans have picked apart Sotomayor’s record as a lawyer, civil rights activist and judge. Sotomayor currently serves on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and, if confirmed, would serve as the high court’s first Latina justice.

Senate Republicans have gotten little traction trying to derail her installment, but not for a lack of trying. GOP Senators have gone to the floor and to the media to criticize Sotomayor’s views on gun rights, affirmative action and the death penalty, among other things.

In each of those areas, Republicans have outlined specific concerns: On gun rights, for instance, they have criticized Sotomayor for having an overly narrow interpretation of the Second Amendment, while her views on civil rights law have been seen as overly broad.

Democrats have tried to blunt those attacks and will continue to do so throughout this week’s Judiciary hearings. As they employ a rapid-response-style messaging strategy to counter any GOP criticisms, Sotomayor herself will carefully avoid language that would incite her opposition.

Democrats, in particular, plan to highlight what they view as Sotomayor’s moderate approach to the law and will likely continue to emphasize her strong support from law enforcement organizations. Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (Vt.) and other panel Democrats have made it a point to tout the backing she has received.

“Judge Sotomayor’s criminal justice record proves that she is a moderate judge, whose decisions in criminal cases rarely differ from those of her colleagues on the federal bench,— Leahy said last week during a meeting with top law enforcement officials.

Additionally, while most of the Democrats’ focus leading up to the hearings had been on Sotomayor’s law-and-order record, women’s organizations and other traditionally Democratic interest groups weighed in recently. Ultimately, Democrats have said they feel fairly confident going into today’s hearings and believe the onus will be on Republicans to make the case for why she should not be approved.

“Judge Sotomayor has a very distinguished and very moderate record. The Republican arguments just can’t hold up against it. If they make their claims more than once, they will come across as bullies,— one Democrat close to the White House said.

Meanwhile, Republicans plan to parse every word, just as they have over the past several weeks since President Barack Obama announced his first pick for the high court.

GOP lawmakers have sought to tie several seemingly isolated issues together with the thread of “empathy— — arguing that in each instance Sotomayor has tried to use the law to pursue an agenda, rather than simply interpret the law as written.

For example, when Sotomayor said in a 2002 lecture that as a Latina she would come to a better conclusion than a white man, Republicans pounced. And conservatives became inflamed again when, in 2005 during a panel discussion, Sotomayor suggested half jokingly that the appeals court is where policy is made.

While Sessions has had the support of McConnell, Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.), Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a prominent Judiciary member, and a few others, he has struggled to get his message to resonate with the broader public.

With this week’s hearings, Republicans hope to change that and say the high-profile forum should provide them with an opportunity to not only question Sotomayor but to set the stage for a larger, long-term fight over the direction of the judiciary.

In an interview late last week, Sessions made it clear that the hearings will be the culmination of a weeks-long process of weaving her judicial rulings, public statements, writings and résumé into a single pattern of judicial activism.

“We’ve really got a big, important issue, commencing with the president’s standard of empathy. … If you show empathy for one side, you show bias towards another side,— Sessions said, calling Obama’s view of the judiciary a “flawed philosophy.—

“Based on her writings and speeches, it’s fair to say that it does appear that Judge Sotomayor does agree with that philosophy, and some of her speeches are more explicit than the president has been. So we need to talk this nomination. We need to talk about the future of the federal judicial system,— he said.

As a result, the hearings — even when they dip into specific cases — can be expected to turn into a forum for Republicans to make the case against what Sessions views as a “cynical— approach to the law. Sessions said GOP Senators will make plain that judges cannot manipulate the law to fit their political or personal agendas. “That’s legal heresy,— Sessions argued.

Similarly, Republicans are likely to spend significant time questioning Sotomayor about whether a judge’s life experiences should affect her rulings.

In many ways, Republicans have tried to have it both ways on the question of experience. GOP Senators have largely agreed that Supreme Court nominees should come from a variety of professional backgrounds to add new perspectives to the bench, but at the same time they also reject the argument that gender or ethnic balance is an essential element of the court.

Sessions said the question of whether personal experiences influence a judge’s view of the law will be one of the primary issues at the hearings. He said judges should be able to separate their life experiences from the law when deciding cases.

“The ideal has got to be up there. The goal has to be there,— he said.

Sessions, who assumed the top Judiciary post in May, has essentially laid his cards on the table when it comes to the first Supreme Court nomination he will oversee in his new post. He made clear exactly where he expects Republicans to take their line of questioning; he does not foresee any curve balls.

“I think most of the issues that are likely to come up, Senators have talked about on the floor already,— Sessions said.

“We discussed this. I said, I don’t think we need to remain quiet. If we have concerns, let’s state them now,— Sessions said.

And while that approach may mean there won’t be nearly the political theater that has come to mark many previous Supreme Court confirmations, Sessions argued the hearings are about issues much broader than politics. “I think it’s more important than just a day’s drama. I think we need to begin a national discussion of how judges should see their role. That’s very important,— he said.

“If this is going to be the pattern. We’re building up to a major national discussion— on the future of the judiciary, Sessions said.

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