The Interrogation of Sonia Sotomayor

Friday, July 10, 2009; 4:52 PM

U.S. Appeals Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor will soon undergo the Senate Judiciary Committee's ritual interrogation, joining the pantheon of great legal minds to have their entire personal and professional lives critiqued and questioned in public. While the poking and prodding has derailed the careers of 24 high court nominees, some for good reason, the opposition almost always uses the hearings as cheap sideshows of speculation and innuendo. Senators are no closer today to a consistent set of principles about what they will or won't ask a nominee. And the nominees continue in their predecessors footsteps of not giving straightforward answers.

So confirmation hearings can be little more than nasty. Whatever the qualifications or the ideological stances of a nominee, there's an opposition waiting to turn the hearings into political theatre. As Robert D. Novak put it, they have "been degraded into an endless political campaign."

Take the case of Samuel Alito's hearings, during which Democrats feared another conservative on the bench. After his testimony, The Post editorial board wrote that "Democratic senators often seemed more interested in attacking the nominee -- sometimes scurrilously -- than in probing what sort of a justice he would be."

That wasn't nearly as bad, though, as the unproductive acrimony that resulted from the political point scoring in Clarence Thomas's hearings, which featured Anita F. Hill, a woman who accused him of sexual harassment. The hearing besmirched the character of them both and led The Post's editorial board to declare "the confirmation process has become a shambles and badly needs repair."

And what happens when Senators don't have such explosive allegations to investigate? They chastised Ruth Bader Ginsburg for not answering questions on cases that might come before her. They berated Anthony Kennedy because he belonged to an all-male club in California. They attacked David Souter for not having a long enough record to attack. On and on down the list, each justice has played the political punching bag.

But each of the aforementioned nominees have one thing in common: they were confirmed after they enabled Senators to take their digs. For others, the grilling was more consequential -- even if, according to many of those observing, it was no more deserved. Robert Bork, a choice of former president Ronald Reagan, was the last to be rejected. The editorial board noted on July 10, 1987 that the senators appeared to be "out to get [Bork]," despite his qualifications. George F. Will criticized Democrats in a July 2, 1987 op-ed calling their opposition of Bork "a new stage in the descent of liberalism into cynicism, an attempt to fill a void of principle with a raw assertion of power."

When Sotomayor takes the stand, her opponents should be less inclined to make a political statement at her expense as they are to determine the kind of justice she would make. It might seem like common sense, but as a tour of The Post's archives reveals, politics almost always stands in the way of that.

- Adam Ross

© 2009 The Washington Post Company