Correction to This Article
A photo caption with the column incorrectly referred to the television character Perry Mason as a district attorney. He was a defense lawyer.

Washington Sketch: 'Perry Mason' and the Case of the Stumped Jurist

Sen. Al Franken tested the nominee's knowledge of "Perry Mason."
Sen. Al Franken tested the nominee's knowledge of "Perry Mason." (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
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By Dana Milbank
Thursday, July 16, 2009

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor was breezing through her third day of confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee when she was tripped up by, of all people, Al Franken, the junior senator from Minnesota.

The comedian, in his second week on the job, noted that Sotomayor had, earlier yesterday, said she was inspired to become a prosecutor by watching "Perry Mason," who, in all his TV episodes, lost only one case to the nefarious Hamilton Burger. The Democrat's question was deft and devastating: "What was the one case in 'Perry Mason' that Burger won?"

For the first time this week, the future justice was stumped. "I wish I remembered the name of the episode, but I don't," she confessed. "I just was always struck that there was only one case where his client was actually guilty."

"And you don't remember that case?" pressed a skeptical Franken.

"I know that I should remember the name of it," the nominee apologized, "but I haven't looked at the episode. I --"

Franken cut her off. "Didn't the White House prepare you for that?" he asked with incredulity.

The White House rapid-response team swung into operation as reporters demanded to know the title of the episode. Was it "The Case of the Terrified Typist"? "The Case of the Deadly Verdict"? "The Case of the Witless Witness"?

Yesterday, it was more a Case of the Witless Questioners. In this episode, Perry Mason, Della Street and Paul Drake (played by committee Democrats) defend their client (Sotomayor) from the evil Burger (committee Republicans).

As with other "Perry Mason" episodes, the outcome was bound to come out in Sotomayor's favor, because Democrats hold a lopsided majority and commanded most of the floor time. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) talked to the nominee about baseball's All-Star Game. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said Sotomayor's story "gives me goose bumps," then translated it into the Spanish "piel de gallina." Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) invited her to an Orioles game, then read others' words of praise for her: "She is very good. She is bright. She's a good judge. She is very smart. She is frighteningly smart. . . ."

With so much warmth being emitted, the air conditioning in the hearing room was overwhelmed. Just after noon, Sotomayor was making a point about search-and-seizure law when the lights dimmed and the ventilation system went silent. "That was not a comment from above," Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) assured the judge. But after a series of thumps overhead, he offered some reassurance: "You've been hearing some banging going on here. Apparently, the air conditioning went out." The temperature, measured at 63 degrees in one of the press booths when the hearing started, rose to 79 degrees on the hearing room floor.

Is this what her colleagues meant when they said Sotomayor runs a "hot bench"? More evidence: She threatened to shoot one of the committee's Republicans, Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.).

Coburn was questioning Sotomayor about the Second Amendment when she proposed a playful hypothetical. "If the threat was in this room, 'I'm going to come get you,' " the judge said, and "if I go home, get a gun, come back and shoot you, that may not be legal."

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