As Questioner, Lawmaker Is Man on Own Mission
Specter Well Prepared to Grill Sotomayor

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.

"It sure is," Specter interrupted. "I was the chairman who wasn't notified!"

What Specter also cares about, deeply, urgently, is getting televisions into the Supreme Court so that Americans can see what the robed ones are doing in there. He has introduced such legislation twice.

"They are unaccountable," he said yesterday in an interview after he questioned Sotomayor. "It's not a kingdom. You're not King George V."

Perry Mason? Arlen Specter is not interested in Perry Mason. He left that for Sen. Al Franken to discuss. Specter is interested in secret courts and secret presidential initiatives and the "irreparable harm" of 100 million people voting in a presidential election that eventually was decided by one vote, in a grand building about two blocks away from the Hart Senate Office Building, where yesterday's session was held.

"I want her to be aware of these issues," Specter said when asked why he was pushing the judge to answer his questions. Wise Latina? He's fine with that. Empathy? He's good with that, too. Her record, he said yesterday, is "exemplary." But that doesn't mean he's necessarily going to vote for her. "That's the conventional wisdom," he said. "But I have not said that."

For a generation, as a Republican in a Democratic-leaning state, Specter kept returning to Washington with a combination of mainstream Republican votes, some union support, black votes in Philadelphia and the backing of women's organizations, including NARAL, and other abortion-rights voters. This became an increasingly difficult feat to pull off, and the moment he realized it would no longer work, facing a tough primary fight from the right, Specter called his old buddies Ed Rendell and Joe Biden this spring and accepted their longtime suggestion that he shape-shift back into a Democrat.

When he made his move, he lost his place as ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee and most of his staff. He would be the most junior member, had Franken (D-Minn.) not come along last week. While he stormed through his questioning yesterday, only six other panel members were even in the room.

While his fellow Democrats have divvied up their tasks -- one asked about Sotomayor's prosecutorial days, another covered her role as a commercial litigator -- no one tried to rein in Specter.

"No, no one said anything to me," he said, with some satisfaction. His eyes brightened. "And I have more questions for her tomorrow."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company