In the Sotomayor Drama, Both Sides Play Their Parts

By Dana Milbank
Friday, May 29, 2009

Let's go out on a limb and say that, unless somebody leaks photos of Sonia Sotomayor abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib, she will almost certainly be the next Supreme Court justice.

As Bob Dole might say: You know it, I know it, and the American people know it. She's been sent by a Democratic president to be confirmed by an overwhelmingly Democratic Senate, and many in the Republican minority wouldn't dare make their numbers even smaller by antagonizing Latino voters.

But Washington loves a good show, and few performances are better than a Supreme Court battle. Interest groups need them to raise money, lawmakers use them to fire up the faithful, and reporters always like a good dust-up. So enjoy the drama, but if you find yourself thinking the actors are firing live ammunition, use this mnemonic device to return to reality: Sotomayor rhymes with "phony war."

Cue the apocalyptic statements from conservative groups. "The Obama administration is committed to the slaughter of children in utero and this Supreme Court nominee reflects that intention," said a statement from Operation Rescue, urging a filibuster. The Heritage Foundation called Sotomayor "an unabashed hard-left judicial activist," and Americans United for Life branded her "a radical pick that divides America."

Perhaps the most honest statement was from Richard Viguerie of, who celebrated the arrival of the "first major ideological battle since the early Clinton years." He wrote that "win or lose, we will reap major benefits in the 2010 and 2012 elections."

Liberal groups, by contrast, cheered for the nominee -- literally. "America's workers applaud the nomination," said the AFL-CIO statement. "NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous applauded the historic nomination," said that group's statement. "We applaud President Obama for choosing Judge Sonia Sotomayor," said the Human Rights Campaign. Also "applauding": the Anti-Defamation League, the National Hispana Leadership Institute, the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, the American Diabetes Association, the Council of the Americas and the National Association of Latino Elected Officials.

With so much applause from the interest groups, Democratic politicians felt compelled to put their hands together, too. Some headlines from their news releases: "RANGEL APPLAUDS SOTOMAYOR NOMINATION" . . . "PASCRELL APPLAUDS HISTORIC NOMINATION" . . . "MENENDEZ APPLAUDS NOMINATION OF JUDGE SOTOMAYOR" . . . "REPRESENTATIVE FUDGE APPLAUDS JUDGE SOTOMAYOR'S NOMINATION."

As the ovation swelled, newly converted Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter wasn't about to hold his applause. "I applaud the nomination," he announced. And Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) took a break from defending his role in the Blagojevich scandal to announce: "As a former attorney general, I applaud President Obama's selection."

Neither the left-leaning groups -- Esperanza, the United Steelworkers -- nor the right-leaning ones -- the Family Research Council, the American Tort Reform Association -- dwelled on the boring truth that swapping Sotomayor for David Souter would do little to alter the court's ideological balance. When it comes to fundraising, panic sells. "OBAMA'S COURT NOMINATION VALIDATES AMERICA'S RUSH TO BUY FIREARMS," screamed the statement from the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.

Perhaps the most difficult role in the drama is that of the Republican senators, who in order to appear senatorial and deliberative must pretend they are open-minded about the nominee, even if they are not. "Some of her writings seem to raise serious questions about her approach to the Constitution," said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a solid "no" vote if ever there was one, "but I will withhold judgment about her nomination."

Instead of vowing opposition, Republican senators signal their interest groups in code: They want a "thorough" hearing -- nudge-nudge, wink-wink. "I expect the Senate will give this nomination a thorough, fair review," said New Hampshire's Judd Gregg. "It is essential that the Senate conducts this process thoroughly," said John Cornyn of Texas. "It is important that . . . her confirmation process be thorough," said Roger Wicker of Mississippi. "I look forward to examining her record thoroughly," said John McCain of Arizona. "A fair and thorough process," said Orrin Hatch of Utah.

Democratic senators were freer to signal their plans. "I do not prejudge any nominee," said Robert Byrd (W.Va.), though he couldn't help but observe that Sotomayor's life story is "reminiscent of that of the son of a West Virginia coal miner who . . . rose to an honorable position in the United States Senate."

Others answered the Republican demand for "thoroughness" with a code of their own. "I look forward to a fair and swift confirmation," said Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.). "A swift and fair confirmation process" was how John Kerry (Mass.) worded it. "Swift consideration," proposed Tom Carper (Del.). "Respectful and swift," recommended Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.). "Her nomination," the swift Michael Bennet (Colo.) contributed, "should be considered swiftly."

It seems everybody has learned their lines. Let's give them a round of applause.

Dana Milbank will be online to chat with readers at noon. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

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