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Post Politics: Sessions, Sotomayor, More

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Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 3, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post staff writer Philip Rucker took your questions about his story on Sen. Jeff Sessions and his role in the confirmation hearings of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, as well as the latest political news.

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Philip Rucker: Good morning, everyone. I'm filling in today for White House correspondent Scott Wilson, who is traveling with President Obama in Saudi Arabia. Today's a busy day. Judge Sonia Sotomayor continues her meetings with senators on Capitol Hill, Obama meets with King Abdullah on Iran's nuclear program and much, much more. Let's get started.

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Washington, D.C.: Nice piece on the Senator, good to see a staff writer on the front page. I wonder if he regrets not being put on the Eleventh Circuit, as they have a new chief judge there from Alabama who's served less long than he would have served had he been appointed. I think he downplayed evidence against him as racist in '86 but that's long ago, as I think he may be fairer to her based on what happened to him. Good job.

Philip Rucker: We've got a couple of questions about my portrait today of Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, so let's start with this one. I asked Sessions whether he wonders what might have been had be been confirmed to the federal judgeship in 1986. Sessions said he doesn't believe it was his destiny to become a judge. He said he is at peace with his life now and is enjoying serving in the Senate.

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GOP - Grand Ol' Procrastination?: I hear that Jeff Sessions wants to push off Sotomayor's vote until September. But I don't really get his logic. After all, John Roberts was first nominated for the Supreme Court in late July 2005, then confirmed as Chief Justice in late September 2005 -- a period of just over two months. Alito took a bit longer, being nominated in late October 2005, and confirmed in late January 2006 -- a period of three months. How can Sessions and others in the GoP justify a period of nearly four months? And WHY do they want to do that?

Philip Rucker: Sessions told reporters yesterday that he wants to hold hearings in the fall, although Obama and Senate Democrats have been calling to have Sotomayor confirmed by Aug. 7, which is when the Senate breaks for its summer recess. Republican Senators are trying to buy more time to review Sotomayor's record and past statements.

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Boston: I enjoyed learning more about Sen. Sessions in your profile. One question on previous Supreme Court nomination hearings: how long was the process from nomination to hearings to confirmation for Roberts and Alito? Would confirming Sotomayor by the Aug. 7 recess fall within those previous cases? If so, would that undercut Senator Session's assertion that he needs until October to prepare for confirmation hearings?

Philip Rucker: I'm glad you enjoyed the Sessions story. To answer your question about timing, I believe the period between President Bush's nomination announcement and Senate confirmation for Justices Roberts and Alito were 72 days and 92 days respectively. So it is not unusual for this period to stretch for many months.

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Annapolis, Md.: I think I am hearing that the GOP want to slow down the process of Supreme Court nominee in order to have more time to look at the record. It's June 3...are they saying they can't possibly have enough time in the next couple of months, minus, say, a week for a hearing? Plus the fact that she was on the short list since the beginning. I know government is non-productive, but PLEASE! Anyone really interested in helping the country and not their party or themselves or whatever would want the new SC member to be able to hit the ground running by the 1st Monday in October.

Philip Rucker: Here's one perspective on the timing debate.

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Saint Paul, Minn.: Hi Philip -- Thanks for taking questions today. Here in MN I don't think anyone is terribly surprised that Gov. Pawlenty isn't running again in 2010. The bigger concern is what this means for the never-ending Senate race. Recount fatigue is at all time high, with any patience for continued delays long gone. Still, we hear that, since he's not running, Pawlenty now has the freedom to refuse to sign an election certificate, thus encouraging Coleman to take his case to the federal courts. The thought of that is more than many Minnesotans can bear. What's your take on the impact of Pawlenty's decision?

Philip Rucker: One of the big political stories yesterday was Gov. Tim Pawlenty announcing he would not run for reelection in 2010. This clears the way for him to pursue the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. It's unclear how his decision may impact the ongoing Senate recount battle. There's a theory that by not having to run for reelection, Pawlenty now has more freedom to back Coleman, which could help him appeal to the national GOP base.

Please check my colleague Chris Cillizza's Fix post on Pawlenty from yesterday.

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Cincinnati, Ohio: Since the Senate only has one or two possible 2012 presidential contenders, what role will that election play in the confirmation hearings? Perhaps more importantly, how will the 2010 elections impact the votes of the two or three border state Republicans facing reelection?

Philip Rucker: Every senator voting on Sotomayor's hearing will be thinking about the politics of 2010 and 2012. Questioning Sotomayor too aggressively could turn off the all-important Latino vote. Keep an eye on Sens. John Cornyn and Jon Kyl, who represent Texas and Arizona respectively -- both states with large Latino populations -- to see how they handle Sotomayor's hearings.

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WaPo Falsehood Watch: Hey, Philip... in today's article on Sessions and Sotomayor, you let a big piece of GOP misinformation slip through without challenge. To wit: the falsehood that President Obama said he would seek a Supreme Court nominee who demonstrates "empathy," rather than a commitment to follow the law. In fact, Obama said his nominee will demonstrate both-. There are other examples where the Post has cited conservatives' concerns about Obama's "empathy" comments while omitting his statements about the "rule of law."

-Obama Admin statement here: May 1 White House Press Briefing

Philip Rucker: This story was really about Senator Sessions, not President Obama's judicial philosophy. I referenced the president's "empathy" remark briefly as a way to draw a contrast with Sessions's legal philosophy. You are correct that Obama has said he wants a nominee who demonstrates both empathy and a commitment to the law.

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Reading, Pa.: Are these courtesy calls by a nominee for the high court standard procedure and is there any substantive discussion or is it just a photo op ?

Philip Rucker: Great question. As far back as I can recall, Supreme Court nominees have paid visits to key senators before their confirmation hearings begin. For Sotomayor, yesterday and today's meetings offered a chance to develop a personal rapport with senators and discuss issues that may come up in the hearing. Some of the discussions have been substantive. In fact, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he and Sotomayor talked about her Latina heritage comment from 2001.

Nonetheless, these visits are great photo ops for the White House. There were dozens of cameras capturing Sotomayor's every move yesterday, a scene that Dana Milbank captured well in his Washington Sketch today.

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Vernon, British Columbia, Canada: good morning Philip, I too enjoyed the Sessions story, but I wasn't too thrilled with the headline of the article you wrote about the anti-abortionist Terry. They are anti-abortionists, not pro-lifers. If you call anti-abortionists pro-life, then you are in essence calling pro-choice people anti-life, or pro-death. Most of MSM has managed to make the distinction, and refrains from the pro-life label. After all former President Bush was pro-life but also pro-death penalty so it's an obvious misnomer. Please refrain from using the term, especially in the headline. Thanks.

washingtonpost.com: Pro-Life Activist Says Doctor 'Reaped What He Sowed'

Philip Rucker: Thanks for sharing your concern.

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Menomonie, Wisc.: I don't get the timing and research issues on Judge Sotomayor. She has been confirmed twice. Many of the same senators who originally confirmed her are still there. They should have all the knowledge that they need.

Thank you for listening.

Philip Rucker: This is a fair point, however a nomination to the Supreme Court is not just any federal nomination. This is the highest court of the land, so we expect senators to take their time evaluating Judge Sotomayor's record and statements.

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Nice answer -- now, "why, REALLY?": I think the questioner (above) was trying to get at what cases are coming to the court before September that the GOP might not want to see Sotomayor rule on ? This "record review" MacGuffin is just a stalling tactic... why do they really want to wait until September? Do they see a political upside to stalling the nomination?

Philip Rucker: At this point, all signs point to an easy confirmation of Judge Sotomayor. By pushing back the Senate hearings until the fall, Republicans would buy more time and hope that some damaging statement surfaces to derail her. But that appears increasingly unlikely.

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Washington, DC: Is Sessions trying to wait until the current Supreme Court issues its opinion in the Ricci case, given that it is likely to reverse the Second Circuit?

Philip Rucker: This could be another reason Republicans want to stall the hearings. The Ricci case is the New Haven firefighters case, which my colleagues Robert Barnes and Eli Saslow wrote about this weekend. Can we get a link up here?

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Indianapolis: Is there a reason Obama isn't pushing more forcefully for national health insurance and other items on his agenda? He seems to put ideas out there, but he doesn't do a lot to sell them. A 65 percent approval rating is great, but it's worthless if you don't use it.

Philip Rucker: Obama has been pushing aggressively for his health care agenda over the past few weeks. There are so many pressing issues -- the economy, General Motors, Supreme Court nomination, visit to the Middle East, war in Afghanistan -- that he can't possibly devote all of his time to just one issue. If you'd like to learn more about health care reform, please check out my colleague Ceci Connolly's excellent new blog, the Daily Dose.

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Princeton, NJ: In your piece on Senator Sessions you use the word "vilified" and quote him that was "disengaged from the civil rights movement" and was "smear(ed)". Didn't the facts show clearly that he was a typical Southern racist and to quote him that, "It was so embarrassing to have people think that I didn't believe in equality, that I was racist or had discriminatory intent," he said. "This was horrible. That was not so." is really a huge distortion.

Philip Rucker: This was a very sensitive part of the story. As a reporter, it is not my job to declare whether Jeff Sessions was "a typical Southern racist." My role is to report his alleged comments that surfaced during his 1986 confirmation hearings and then provide him a fair opportunity to explain himself, which he did. Readers can draw their own conclusions about whether or not Sessions had any discriminatory intent.

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Prescott, Ariz.: When Senators questioned Samuel Alito about his touting his membership (when applying for the Reagan DOJ) in the "Concerned Alumni of Princeton," a group committed to stopping the inflow of minorities and women into Princeton, Alito's wife started crying.

With Republicans already calling Sotomayor a flat-out "racist," do you think they will make her cry at the hearings?

Philip Rucker: I'd be surprised if Judge Sotomayor broke down in tears during her confirmation hearing. It's worth noting that the Republicans calling her "racist" are not sitting members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and therefore will not have an opportunity to question her in her hearings. The seven Republican senators on that panel, including Jeff Sessions, have been much more measured in their comments about Sotomayor thus far.

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Houston: Yes, but wouldn't the SC nominee have to recuse herself from hearing the Ricci case, as Justice Roberts did for a case early in his tenure?

Philip Rucker: I'm not sure about this.

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Indianapolis: Why do Republicans get a say in when the Sotomayor hearings take place?

Philip Rucker: The hearing schedule is negotiated between Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who chairs the committee, and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who is the ranking member.

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Borderline Crazy: Has Sen. Leahy lost his mind ? What on Earth is his motivation for wanting to bring more immigrants into the U.S. in this manner ?

Philip Rucker: I don't know about Senator Leahy's immigration position, but I interviewed him yesterday and his mind seemed intact.

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Sore Loserman, MN: Forget about Pawlenty not ratifying Franken's victory in Minnesota. Can the GOP afford to continue dumping money into a campaign they lost last year? They had fund-raising issues in 2008, I can't imagine they are going into the 2010 with a load of dry powder.

Philip Rucker: This is a good question. Coleman's legal challenge is very expensive and it's unclear how much longer Republicans will be willing to fund it.

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Salinas, Calif.: Hi Phillip. Do you have any sense that conservative Republicans are backing away from their code, knee-jerk reaction to the "E" word (empathy). Unless one were either a self-involved narcissist or a stone, cold sociopath, wouldn't we want our Justices to have the ability to understand points of view other than the ones they already hold?

Philip Rucker: The "E" word continues to be a focus for conservative Republicans. In my story today, Senator Sessions called judicial activism a "postmodern infection" that threatens law.

"We need to articulate why it's important that judges show restraint and that every American can believe that when they call that ball a ball and that strike a strike it was an honest call, not because they were pulling for one side or another," Sessions said.

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The GOP's Case *FOR* Affirmative Action?: Isn't it true that the GOP, while attacking Sotomayor, have inadvertently made the case for affirmative action? After all, aren't they proving that, all things being equal, a minority woman is held to a different standard than the white man of similar background and experience?

This manufactured hissy-fit over Sotomayor's remarks on her background's effect (or not) on her decisions, when viewed against the way Alito's were marketed as a selling point for him as a judge, actually makes the case that we obviously still need affirmative action: Two judges made similar points -- one was an Italian-American man, the other was a Latino woman -- but what was sold as a strength for Alito makes Sotomayor a racist.

Philip Rucker: Here's one perspective.

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Claverack, NY: When the anti-Sotomayor activists take to the airwaves, I notice that time and again, they seem to come back to the failed nomination of Miguel Estrada to the Court of Appeals. I don't understand what they think they gain from that. It sounds like sour grapes. And no one remembers who he is outside the Beltway.

Philip Rucker: Here's another.

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Sotomayor: I believe that Sonia Sotomayor would be the first alliterative justice on the SCOTUS since Felix Frankfurter. Isn't that reason enough for Republicans to confirm her with all due haste?

Philip Rucker: And another.

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re. Sessions: Obama said last night on the NBC interview that he saw the cable talk fests like a WWF show. Everyone has their assigned parts and fill their proper role. Both the right wing nuts and the left wong loons play their respective parts. It seems the same way in the House and Senate. Sen. Sessions says that he has an "open mind," but everyone knows that he will end up voting against the Sotomayer nomination, because that is his (self?) assigned role as a Southern Conservative. No way he votes for a Puerto Rican Democrat from NYC. $10 bucks to your favorite charity if I'm wrong.

Philip Rucker: You may well be right about Senator Sessions. But during my interviews with him, he was adamant that he would give Judge Sotomayor a fair hearing and treat her with respect -- regardless of how he votes on her nomination to the Supreme Court.

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DC: Sotomayor claims that she knows more than a white man who hasn't lived the full life of a latina. Well, Sotomayor is a divorcee who never had kids. I guess she doesn't know anything about having kids and cherishing her own kids, so she obviously would be pro-choice then.

Philip Rucker: Another perspective.

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Roseland, NJ: I don't see how it helps the GOP cause if the Court overrules on Ricci. Does any serious person believe an SC overrule means the appeals court judges were stupid? The overrule may happen on a 5-4 vote- does that mean the four dissenting justices are stupid?

Philip Rucker: The New Haven firefighters case has emerged as one of Judge Sotomayor's most controversial rulings, so the Republicans would probably like to see the Supreme Court rule on it before or during her hearings to keep this case in the news.

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Philip Rucker: Well, I've run out of time. I'm sorry that I couldn't get to all of the questions. Thanks for participating and we'll see you next time.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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