Sotomayor: Senators Begin Questioning, What to Expect Today

Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 15, 2009; 10:00 AM

What did you think of the questions senators posed to Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor? Washington Post congressional reporter Paul Kane was online Wednesday, July 15 at 10 a.m. ET to discuss the second day of her confirmation hearing, and what to look for today.


Paul Kane: With all due respect to Brent Musberger and the old NFL Today pre-game show, I want to start by saying: You're looking live at soldout Hart 216, where Sonia Sotomayor is doing battle with Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.

Here we are, ladies and gentlemen. A live chat from inside the hearing room. As I type Cornyn is going back over many of the same topics that the first 5 Republicans asked her about yesterday: 'wise Latina' speech; the Ricci case involving New Haven firefighters; the appellate courts 'make-policy' speech.

Not sure how much new information will come out today, because if the Rs focus on all the same material, it will allow her to retreat to the same answers she's already given. We'll see. Now, I'm both paying attention to your questions today, with my eyes, but listening to the Qs from the senators. So if I disappear for 5 mins or more, don't worry, I've not been kidnapped by Dana Milbank. It just means there's a good exchange and I'm listening closedly. So, fire away with your questions, folks. --pk


Helena, Montana: On the "optics" of these hearings - don't the Republican senators look old and white? Reminds me of cranky old men flailing against the passage of time and loss of power. Even Lindsay Graham looks old. I really enjoyed the Judge Cedarbaum episode yesterday. Any chance that another Republican will give us more enjoyment than that?

Paul Kane: With all due respect to the senators on this committee, they all look old and white. The closest thing we have to pigmentation is Lindsey Graham's face, when it gets really red when he gets going and starts getting mad.

Look at the Democrats: Leahy, Kohl, Feinstein, Schumer, Durbin, Cardin, Klobuchar, Specter, Kaufman, Franken.

All white folks. Dems at least have 2 women, but otherwise all white.

This panel has never been very representative of the world at large.


Burke, Va.: The giant headline on currently says "Sotomayor Back in Senate Hot Seat".

How hot can that seat be when she's virtually guaranteed confirmation?

Paul Kane: Literally speaking, it's not a very hot seat. Milbank and me have been complaining for 2 days now about how cold it is in here. Yesterday, Jan Crawford Greenberg, ABC's legal affairs correspondent extraordinaire, was wearing a fleece in her booth.

Milbank brought a traveling thermometer with him today -- seriously. AS of now it read 71 degrees, but I think it's broken, because it's chilly.


Bethesda, Md.: I thought the questions posed by the committee were pointed and relevant. Especially the two questions concerning why she made the "Latina" comment and her decision on the Ricci case.

I thought her answers were poor because if she really believed in her "Latina" comments and her decision about the Ricci case, she should have come out a lot stronger in her own defense; instead she gave weak excuses just to try to appease the panel just so she can get nominated. Especially, when she said she was just following precedent in the Ricci case; I liked it when one Senator asked her why didn't she THINK that decision out more for herself.

And THINK is the keyword for her. She constantly taking notes. One wonders if she has a problem remembering.

Paul Kane: Oh come on, you can argue a lot of things about her, but you can't complain about her taking notes about the comments that the senators are making. Please, it shows that she's actually trying to remember what they said, so she can properly answer them back!

As for what's happening now, Ben Cardin (D-Md.) just spent a bit of time talking about her temperment. At the end of yesterday, Lindsey Graham read some comments about how she was a "bully" and had a "hot bench", per anonymous comments from a legal journal that quoted lawyers who appeared before her. Time ran out yesterday and no Democrat had rebutted the charge. So 4 of them rushed to the mics outside the room to say good things about her temperment, noting how calm she's been throughout the hearings.

Clearly, Dems were worried that this charge went unanswered today. We'll see how many others bring this up in the remainder of 1st round questions.


Kettering, Ohio: Good morning Paul. Even after the attempts by many, including the WaPo's own Eugene

Robinson, to gloss over Sotomayor's wise Latina remark, I think many will be satisfied with her response to this question. She said it was worded poorly at best, as did the Obama Administration, and that she regretted saying it that way. Which was the best thing she could have said as Sen. Graham was also correct when he said that if he had said it, substituting white guy for Latina, he wouldn't be in the Senate anymore. How do you think this has been handled by the Republicans? Why the double standard int he first place?

Paul Kane: The question for Republicans is, how long can they stay fixated on 'wise Latina'?

She said what she said in those 5 speeches, and now she's given her explanation of what she meant to say, what she wanted to say, about 10 times, maybe more. Whether you believe her or not, this is the line she's going to keep coming back to; so, will Republicans keep going after this 1 line from her speeches?

The reason I ask is, are they playing into her strengths? This is the 1 area for which she has most prepared, most focused on. Cornyn began with the same topic again this morning, and he got almost verbatim the exact same answer from her as the previous 5 GOP senators got:

"My words failed, they didn't work. The message that the entire speech attempted to deliver, however, remains the message that Justice O'Connor meant,"


Northville, NY : "This panel has never been very representative of the world at large."

Oh heck, Paul, just say it: the Senate is our House of Lords. It barely represents anybody, except for those who can pay to play, and its heavily slanted towards the states where nobody lives. The House may be a house of clowns, but it's basically representative of the country, god help us. The Senate was a constitutional blunder that we'll always be paying for.

Paul Kane: Today's "constituational blunder" is tomorrow's savior of democracy. Every single one of these chats I've done the last 12 months, I remind liberals/progressives/lefties that 4 years ago they LOVED the Senate and fought the attempts of conservatives/righties to overthrow the filibuster on judicial nominees.

Just remember this. One day tables will be turned.


Chambersburg, Pa.: Thank you, Paul, for encouraging our comments.

I think most of the questions are Shakespearian, "Much To Do About Nothing." Unless you are trying to achieve a certain agenda, ie. overturning Roe V Wade, then you have to admit adding diversity to the court will make it stronger. The Court needs her, just as it needs Thomas, Scalia, and Ginsburg.

We all have cultural prejudices to which we are blind. A judge with a differing background,who can call her fellow judges on their prejudices, will help them see. How else will Lady Liberty to remain truly blind?

Paul Kane: One area in which Cornyn evoked interesting responses was trying to elicit a bit more from her about what positive attributes being a Latina brings to the bench. It was framed in a semi-positive way, asking her to explain what good things she brings to the table from her upbringing, based on something she said in her speeches.

It brought out this answer from her, and I think it's one that some people will disagree with:

"It helps you listen and understand. It doesn't change what the law is and the law commands."

"It improves both the public's confidence, that there are a variety of different judges on the bench feeling confidence that all arguments are going to be understood."

"It could effect the process of judging."


St. Mary's City, Md.: With Sotomayor's confirmation likely, is Sessions putting up a fight simply out of principle or party loyalty? Or is he deliberately pandering to white men who perceive themselves as disenfranchised? As a white man myself, I suspect the latter.

Paul Kane: Sessions is a very principled conservative. He would put up a fight regardless of the certainty of her confirmation. He doesn't believe in free passes.


Edinburg, N.Y. : News flash: male attorneys don't like being aggressively questioned by female judges. Such women lack judicial temperament, but a man who does the same is merely aggressive and brooks no nonsense.

Sorry, this stuff is killing the GOP with both Hispanics and women. If Obama is smart, he'll pick yet another women for the next opening; it's fish in a barrel.

Paul Kane: This is a line that Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota came close to saying at the post-hearing presser yesterday evening. As a former prosecutor, she came close to suggesting a double standard, or at least a different standard for female judges/prosecutors. I asked her directly if she was suggesting that, but she wouldn't go that far.

Instead, she just said that, where she came from, "Good judges were expected to ask tough questions."

Watch to see if Klobuchar stands up for a woman's right to be tough.


Tampa, Fla.: "The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience."

Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Common Law (1881).

This is one of the most famous statements about our legal system, in one of classics of American jurisprudence, from one of the greatest of all American jurists.

Would Sen. Graham and the Republicans have voted against confirming Justice Holmes to the Supreme Court? Do they know something he did not? Are they telling Judge Sotomayor that Justice Holmes is a poor role model?

Paul Kane: I think the Republicans would counter that the 'experience' Holmes was referring to was the years spent in the law, in the courtroom, studying the Constitution and its foundations.

PS -- Back in the 19th century, there were no Supreme Court confirmation hearings, so there wouldn't be any hearings for Holmes.


Prince George's County: She's an American, but she's supposed to be the first person of Latin descent to be nominated. But could you clarify that for us. Isn't there another of Latin descent?

Paul Kane:

Cardozo was a Portugese Jew. I'll leave it up to you to decide whether you consider that Hispanic/Latin. He apparently did not.


Franconia, Va.: I see a new headline on the Post that a Senate committee just passed health care on a party line vote. Is this a defeat for Baucus and Obama? I know they had worked hard for a bipartisan solution. Or is it a different committee? The headline doesn't say and there's no article yet.

Paul Kane: OMG! A health-care question. Someone beat down this interloper, we're talking Supremes here, dude.


No, it's not a defeat that it was a party-line vote. The health committee was always taking a more partisan approach to their draft of this legislation. This was expected.


Vernon, British Columbia, Canada: Hi Paul, thanks for the live updates. Concerning the Cedarbaum incident yesterday, how stupid did the GOP senator look yesterday, he did one of the biggest no-no's a lawyer could ever do--"Don't ask the question if you don't know what the answer will be." The dozen eggs on his face couldn't cover the shock of her answer. Up until then I found the GOP questions and statements for the most part legit, but that just made the GOP look petty and cheap, and unprepared. Sorry, couldn't remember the name of the hapless senator.

Paul Kane: All I'll say on this is, I've always had a PK Rule of Life No. 1: Never ask a question that you don't want to know the answer of.

Case in point: Can it get any worse?

Answer: Do you really want to know?

Republicans, politically speaking, have been asking 'can it get any worse' for about 3 years. I think they're close to having an answer to that: No.

FYI: Coburn is really bearing in on abortion, assisted suicide, interesting social issues. In ways that no one else on his side of the dais has done so far. Interesting to have a doctor's perspective in the house, er, SEnate.


I Love It!: A Latino woman with a New England accent! I love it!

BTW...I am tired of some media referring to her as a "daughter of immigrants." Her parents were born in Puerto Rico, which has been a United States territory since her parents were kids.

Paul Kane: I don't think you'll see the 'daughter of immigrants' line anywhere in the Post these days. We might've made the mistake in the 1st or 2nd day of coverage, but not since.


Chattanooga, Tenn.: Is there any real point to this week's proceedings other than the narcissistic cacophony of senator's voices selectively soothing their own tympanic membranes?

Paul Kane: The reason behind all this? I don't know. It's one of those rituals that we've now adopted as a necessity in order to get to the court. I'm not sure what good it provides the broader public, although it at least gives us a glimpse of this particular judge, who will soon disappear from public view until the day years from now that she retires.

This is our only chance at seeing the nominee, so enjoy it while you can.


Athens, Ga.: Has Sessions talked any about one big reason he's in the Senate. He was rejected as a Federal Judge by this same committee in a past Congress! Talk about a need for empathy! I've not read anything about his views on how fair the process is. It seems he has a valuable viewpoint on the subject.

Paul Kane: Where were you when he got named ranking member?

Everyone wrote about this, everyone did.


Fairfax, Virginia: Hypothetical question: is there any way to turn back the clock so we don't have this completely pointless waste of Senate resources every time a Justice is nominated? If this was "downtime" and we didn't need the Senate, I'd be all for it as a hazing/Japanese tea ceremony that's just one of our quaint American ways, but it seems like an exercise totally without value that is losing us time in solving real problems. (Not just the hearings, but the time to prepare, and the time for the Senate to debate and vote.)

Actually, it is worse than a hazing or tea ceremony. It's rubbing salt in the nation's wounds by emphasizing partisanship and racial and gender hate (thinly disguised), to no purpose. The whole thing feels creepy and a little slimy. Could we not do this in the future? Is there any way to put this custom back in the bottle?

Paul Kane: Sorry, I think this is like the national political conventions. It's something that is just a part of the process, I don't see any way to change that in the next few decades.

These are lifetime appointments, after all, we've got to do something to assure this person's suitability for the court. Remember, Bush nominated Harriet Miers 4 years ago. If there were an easy process to get confirmed, she might be on the high court now. Instead, she had to go through the process of meeting every senator in private, first, before getting ready for the hearings.

She was terrible in the private meetings, and when they started preparing her for the hearings -- the so-called murder boards to prepare -- she was terrible.

No one felt she was a good fit for the court, conservative, liberal, moderate. The process worked in that case.


Boston: After impressing me with his train of thought statement Monday, Lindsey Graham made me want to strangle him yesterday with his sanctimonious advice to Sotomayor to "reflect" on anonymous quotes about her temperament. I am sure I could find some anonymous quotes for him to reflect on too.

Paul Kane: Worth noting: Cardin read into the record a bunch of anonymous quotes from other lawyers who liked her.

Coburn just waived the Constitution in the air -- you know what happened? Click, click, click. Those poor photogs sit in the well all day, just praying for some movement so they can get a decent shot. Luckily for them, the judge is very handsy -- moving them all the time.


Reston: God Bless Senator Coburn: he's asking the right questions, unfortunately, to the wrong person as the Sotomayor answering them is not the real Sotomayor from the past nor the one we will see on the SCOTUS once seated.

What do you think Paul?

Paul Kane: I think Coburn is asking questions from the social conservative viewpoint better than his other Republicans have. He's the first guy to not talk about 'wise Latina'. He's just asking questions differently than the others. He's the only non-lawyer for Republicans on the committee. I suspect Franken will have an interesting viewpoint to his questions, as another non-lawyer on the panel.


Paul Kane: Alright gang, it's 11 a.m., and I gotta really focus on these questions now. Once Coburn finishes, you'll really get a sense for what the Dem majority is like this year -- because Democrats get 5 straight sets of Qs without a GOP rebuttal, as the committee is stacked 12-7 for Dems.

The questioning of the nominee is almost certain to go into tomorrow morning or afternoon.

In other news, Springsteen today officially announced 25 new concerts this fall. Bruce, thanks for the birthday present! -pk


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