Quiet and Calm Outside Sotomayor Hearings

By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 13, 2009; 3:03 PM

The first requirement for Judge Sonia Sotomayor on the first day of her confirmation hearings has been to sit alone at a table in a packed Senate hearing room and appear pleasantly impassive. This she has managed nicely, as Republican senators question if she will invent practices in judicial law or bring "radical change" and Democratic senators lavish praise about her accomplishments and extraordinary career. Her hands have remained flat on the table before her, a pad for notetaking untouched.

Her family and friends were arrayed behind her, nearly 35 photographers sitting cross-legged in a circle before her. Behind the photographers sit the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, a panel comprised mostly of white men in dark suits.

Through much of the day Room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building primarily was a chamber of polite recitation of senatorial opening statements. There have been three disruptions: About 45 minutes into the hearing, a man at the back of the room jumped to his feet and shouted about protecting the unborn and "unborn Latinos." Capitol Hill police quickly pounced. About 12:35 p.m., another man shouted "Abortion is murder!"; police collared him, too. A third protester was removed two hours later after the committee had returned from its lunch break.

There has been one appreciative chuckle. About 90 minutes in, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) put bluntly what will happen after these scheduled four days of hearings: "Unless you have a complete meltdown, you are going to get confirmed." As laughter spread through the room, he quickly added, "And I don't think you're going to have a meltdown."

The proceedings in the morning were so unremarkable that Nina Totenberg, the veteran Supreme Court correspondent for National Public Radio, could be seen working a crossword puzzle. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a man not known for being press-shy, told aides as he bustled out of the room during a short break that "I'm not going to stop" in the ersatz spin room set up outside.

The atmosphere inside mirrored the atmosphere outside, when Sotomayor rolled up to the Hart building shortly after 9 this morning. The nation's capital was at its most tidy and earnest.

The first 50 members of the public had already received their tickets to the hearing room, on nice card stock with a dark green border, suitable for keeping. They dispersed for coffee and lined up dutifully again, by 8:55 a.m. The sunlight dappled on the pink begonias, and tall oaks shaded the members of the citizenry who waited at First Avenue and C Street NE for admission.

The usual noisy tug of this republic seemed to have gone on mute.

The pavement in front of the Supreme Court was empty. The few dedicated persons who pray the rosary for the unborn were nowhere to be seen. Even the small band of protesters across the intersection seemed well-behaved. Their "Defeat Sotomayor, Overturn Roe" chant carried on the breeze for a handful of minutes, then stopped.

Ephraim Cruz of New York was first in line, having arrived at 3 a.m. Six hours later, he still looked fresh: black pinstriped suit, gleaming baby blue tie. Cruz, who is affiliated with the health care unit of the Service Employees International Union in New York, did not want to take a chance that he might miss today's historic hearing for the first Latino nominee to the Supreme Court -- or, as a placard-waving Sotomayor supporter on Maryland Avenue had it, "la prima Latina."

"Like President Obama's trajectory, she represents that same trajectory of working class-background people who have applied themselves," said Cruz. "New York is gushing."

He had the line mostly to himself, as dark turned to dawn. By 7:30 a.m., though, about 100 people stood or sat, the conventional crowd of the curious and the wonkish, a copy of The Economist here, someone reading "The Audacity of Hope" there. Matt Douglas, a third-year law student at the University of Kentucky, got permission to take the day off from his job at the Department of Justice's Office of Tribal Justice.

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