Partisans Likely to Use Sotomayor Hearings as a Platform and a Barometer

The empty witness table for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, as the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill, July 13.
The empty witness table for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, as the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill, July 13. (Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 13, 2009

When Sonia Sotomayor takes her seat today in front of the 19 members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, she will finally add her own voice to those that have been arguing publicly for confirmation of the first Latina Supreme Court justice.

How she answers the questions of Republican panel members -- both the substance of her comments and how she handles herself in the spotlight -- will help determine whether charges from her critics persist about her ability to apply the law fairly, without a bias toward any group.

But the historic week-long exchange inside Room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building is only partly about the fate of Sotomayor's nomination, as both sides predict she will win confirmation easily. The battle over President Obama's first court nominee is also likely to have broad and long-lasting political implications for the president and both political parties.

Democrats are betting that an overly zealous assault on Sotomayor by Republican senators could anger Latinos and accelerate the shift of Hispanic voters away from the Republican Party, particularly in the South and West.

Conservatives are hoping to use the Sotomayor hearings as a way to motivate their base if they can successfully portray her as an activist judge whose "empathy" for certain groups guides her rulings more than court precedent or the written law.

And activist groups on both sides have already prepared press releases and statements to argue that the Sotomayor outcome says something about where the country's population is on the issues of guns, abortion, affirmative action, race and gender. Liberals hope an overwhelming vote for her confirmation will encourage Obama to consider even more progressive nominees in the future.

"The stronger is the vote, the stronger is the message to the president and his team that we have some bandwidth here, or some leeway for more progressive nominees," said one activist who has been working to confirm Sotomayor. "That's why there's so much energy for a candidate that you pretty much know is going to be confirmed."

Republican and Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee took to the Sunday television talk shows yesterday to debate Sotomayor and to argue the broader implications for the country if she is elevated to the nation's highest court.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the highest-ranking Republican on the committee, accused Sotomayor of embracing a legal philosophy that is "incompatible with the American system" and said she will be asked to answer for that this week.

"She has criticized the idea that a woman and a man would reach the same result. She expects them to reach different results," Sessions said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "I think that's philosophically incompatible with the American system."

He added that he is "flabbergasted by the depth and consistency of her philosophical critique of the ideal of impartial justice."

In a preview of the exchanges that are likely during the hearings, Democrat Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, who is chairman of the committee, called the comments from Sessions "grasping at straws" and "nitpicking."

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