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The Scene: Culture Wars Intrude on a Day of Cordiality

By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

It was but a blip of perhaps 20 seconds, a hiccup in an orderly, polite proceeding, some shouted words about abortion being wrong.

Heads swiveled toward the back of Room 216 in the Hart Senate Office Building, where Judge Sonia Sotomayor had been sitting at a table alone for hours, pleasantly impassive, waiting her turn to speak. The final senator on the Judiciary Committee was giving his opening statement; Minnesota Democrat Al Franken is the newest, so he went last.

A group of citizens was being ushered quietly from the room. The public, too, had been taking turns all day, 50 at a time, lining up for free tickets to see democracy at work. On the way out, an older white-haired woman turned to yell about overturning Roe v. Wade, then slipped through the door, where Capitol Hill police promptly arrested her.

She was Norma McCorvey, 61 -- Jane Roe herself.

With that, the culture wars that the Obama administration has so carefully tried to avoid forced their way back into full view.

The tensions in American society over social issues often seem to be receding, as two wars and a limping economy claim the focus of the country, and a younger generation shows itself more tolerant of a variety of personal and lifestyle decisions. Political headlines skip from one celebrification to the next -- Ensign, Sanford, Palin.

But the people to whom abortion matters most have a long attention span and are focused on 20 or 30 years down the line. Sotomayor is 55. If confirmed, she is likely to have decades ahead of her on the nation's high court. Her position on abortion isn't publicly known.

In 1971, McCorvey was poor and pregnant, from rape, she said. She became the plaintiff, Jane Roe, in the famous Supreme Court case that overturned the existing laws against abortion in 1973. Years later, she had a change of belief and became an antiabortion activist.

Yesterday, she was one of four who were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct -- disrupting Congress. Capitol Hill police also arrested Robert James of Virginia, Andrew Beacham of Indiana and Francis Mahoney of Florida. Each had the briefest of outbursts at various points throughout the day, timed to coincide with Democratic senators' remarks.

All appeared to be players in the shock street-theater troupe of Randall Terry, who founded Operation Rescue 20 years ago and yesterday brought his provocative props to his latest venue. Outside the Hart Building, Terry and his band brandished posters of aborted fetuses and children's coffins holding dolls covered in stage blood. A demonstrator dressed in a judge's robes carried the sickle of the Grim Reaper.

It was a rare eruption during a day that seemed choreographed to emphasize cordiality, even deliberate blandness.

Sotomayor, in a brilliant blue jacket, sat still during the polite and often-labored opening statements of 19 senators. Her hands remained flat on the table before her, a pad for note-taking untouched. Her broken right ankle was encased in a knee-high walking cast.

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

There were two appreciative chuckles. About 90 minutes in, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) put bluntly what would 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." Later, as Chairman Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont prepared to swear in Sotomayor to give her statement, he fumbled and labeled this protocol "the oath of office." His fellow legislators seemed to wake up and ribbed him for that.

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. Charles E. 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.

Even Sotomayor was economical when recounting her remarkable biography, casting it as "uniquely American."

"On her own, my mother raised my brother and me," she said, then stopped for a long moment to maintain her control. Behind her in the front row, her mother, Celina, pulled out a tissue and dabbed at her eyes.

Overall, the first day of Sotomayor's hearings largely showed the nation's capital at its most tidy and earnest.

By 7:30 a.m., about 100 people stood or sat in the line for public tickets outside the Hart Building, 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.

He carried a biography of Abraham Lincoln and had collected three tickets to gain admittance to three 20-minute periods of yesterday's hearing.

"If I had been in the office, I would have been watching the whole thing anyway," he said, just as he did for the hearings of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. 3 1/2 years ago. "And I'll be back tomorrow, because I want to see the give-and-take."

But as he waited to go in for his second session, his relish for the legal bickering faded for a moment.

"I think it must be hard to be her mother," he said, "watching her daughter get roughed up a little."

Staff writers Jacqueline L. Salmon and Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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