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Grasping at Nunchucks in the Hearing Room

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, July 15, 2009

For those thinking about opposing Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation, be forewarned: The woman knows her nunchucks.

The first to learn of this potential peril during yesterday's questioning of the Supreme Court nominee was Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). "Doesn't your decision in Maloney mean that virtually any state or local weapons ban would be permissible?" he asked.

"Sir, in Maloney, we were talking about nunchuck sticks," the judge explained.

"I understand," said the senator.

"Those are martial arts sticks," Sotomayor added.

Hatch did not want to appear to be a ninja newbie. "Two sticks bound together by rawhide or some sort of a --"

"Exactly," the nominee said. "And when the sticks are swung . . . that swinging mechanism can break arms, it can bust someone's skull."

"Sure," Hatch agreed, breezily. He wasn't about to get into a fight with an expert in martial arts.

The nominee wore a red jacket and a walking cast over her fractured ankle, but the members of the Judiciary Committee couldn't have shown her more deference if she stood before them in a black mask, pointing a sword at them.

Democrats fawned. "If there's a test for judicial temperament, you pass it with an A-plus-plus," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) announced.

Republicans stepped gingerly. One of the toughest questioners, Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), raised the question of whether Sotomayor is "a bully" who has "a temperament problem" -- but also made sure to announce that "I like you" and "I may vote for you."

The nominee and her questioners know that her confirmation is a sure thing unless she makes a dreadful mistake during the hearings -- and the cautious Sotomayor was in no danger of doing that yesterday. She blunted criticism that her most controversial claim -- that a "wise Latina woman" should have superior judgment to a white man -- was in error: "The words I chose, taking the rhetorical flourish, it was a bad idea."

The lack of suspense regarding the outcome left the Judiciary Committee members free to pursue their hobby: bickering among themselves. Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the panel's ranking Republican, alleged that Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) "misrepresented factually the posture of the case."

"I obviously disagree with that," Leahy said, interrupting Sessions's questioning time. After Sessions finished, Leahy offered a rebuttal. After Hatch quizzed the nominee, Leahy again rebutted, prompting Sessions to rebut the rebuttal. Feinstein joined the fight, announcing that what Sessions said "was not correct." Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) accused the Republicans of "pulling lines out of speeches, oftentimes out of context." When Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) questioned the nominee, Leahy growled that Kyl should "let her answer the question." When Kyl finished, Leahy offered yet another rebuttal.

The bickering sometimes made Sotomayor a spectator at her own confirmation hearing. She sat slightly hunched over the table with two glasses before her: one for water and one for Sprite so the diabetic jurist could keep her blood sugar at the right level.

One slip of the tongue could doom her otherwise secure appointment -- and the pressure to avoid error was evident in her eyelids. When Leahy asked her to explain her controversial remark about the superior judgment of a wise Latina woman, she blinked no fewer than 247 times during her answer. When Sessions asked her about the same remark, she blinked an additional 146 times. Her overall blink rate appeared to be between 90 and 100 per minute in the morning, calming to about 50 in the afternoon.

The Democrats did their best to put her at ease. Valentines were read aloud by Kohl ("We hold you in great regard") and New York Democrat Chuck Schumer ("You're a strong person, but also a very nice person") and Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold ("I don't mind telling how much I'm enjoying listening to you"). When the Democrats weren't praising Sotomayor, they were lobbing her softballs. Schumer asked the nominee whether she shares his "love for America's pastime." The chairman asked Sotomayor to talk about the time years ago when she prosecuted "the Tarzan Burglar" who would "swing on ropes" to break into apartments.

The nominee, in turn, tried to soothe the Republicans on the committee ("One of my godchildren is a member of the NRA"), and the tactic seemed to work: Even a few of the Democrats on the panel commented on how respectful the Republicans' questioning was. Kyl, for example, gave Sotomayor a tough time about her "wise Latina" remark, but hastened to add that "I don't want to be misunderstood here" as questioning "whether people's gender, ethnicity or background in some way affects their judging."

The task of being disrespectful fell to a lone audience member who, while Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) was asking technical questions about property rights, screamed: "She's a baby killer! . . . Republicans, defend the babies!"

"People always say I have the ability to turn people on," the 75-year-old Grassley joked after the man was hauled out.

It was seven hours after the hearing started when Graham finally increased the criticism of Sotomayor. He read from a legal publication in which lawyers accused her of being "a terror on the bench" and "out of control" and "nasty." But then Graham tried to soften the allegations. "In fairness to you, there are plenty of statements in the record in support of you as a person," he said.

Graham must have remembered the judge's familiarity with nunchucks.

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