Sen. Specter Well-Prepared to Pepper Sotomayor With Questions

As Sen. Arlen Specter sees it, Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor has an 'exemplary' record on the bench. He made clear, though, that he didn't think much about her answers to questions during her confirmation hearing. Video by AP
By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 16, 2009

Sen. Arlen Specter is 79, was a Democrat before he was a Republican before he was a Democrat again, and has grilled every Supreme Court nominee since William H. Rehnquist. He has had two bouts of cancer, two brain surgeries and a heart bypass operation. In this political town, where the greatest game of all is survival, Specter plays at the level of a grandmaster.

Yesterday morning, he lifted weights for an hour. Then he was pumped to take Sonia Sotomayor to school -- as well as his fellow panelists on the Judiciary Committee, the current Supreme Court justices, and anybody watching on television or contemplating taking Intro to Constitutional Law.

He pelted the nominee with questions about separation of powers, and wireless wiretaps, and secret CIA programs, and voting rights, and the Americans With Disabilities Act, and abortion rights, and the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Clean Water Act, and televisions in court, and the Second Amendment -- all in an economical 30 minutes.

Specter spent hours laboriously preparing for yesterday's questioning, and he sent Sotomayor three letters alerting her to his interests so she could study up. When she stalled, he said, abruptly: "Well, I can tell you're not going to answer. Let me move on." He did this five times.

The senior senator from Pennsylvania chaired the confirmation hearings for Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.; he interrupted them, too, when they didn't answer. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor "really was the last one who answered questions," Specter said later.

Roberts testified one way during his confirmation hearings, specifically on the issues of deference to Congress and taking on a heavier court caseload, and then did something else, Specter charged.

This frustration was on full display yesterday. "Is there anything the Senate or Congress can do if a nominee says one thing seated at that table and does something exactly the opposite once they walk across the street?" he demanded of Sotomayor.

"That, in fact, is one of the beauties of our constitutional system," she began, "which is we do have a separation of . . ."

"Beauty!" Specter nearly snorted, then chuckled. "Beauty -- beauty in the eyes of the beholder."

He gave a colloquy on the limits of executive power: "The president disregarded that in a secret program called the terrorist surveillance program. Didn't even tell the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which is the required practice, or accepted practice. Didn't tell the intelligence committees, where the law mandates that they be told about such programs."

Would the judge, Specter wanted to know, agree that the Supreme Court should take up such cases?

"I know it must be very frustrating to you to . . ." Sotomayor began.

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