Transcript: Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
Opening Statement

CQ Transcriptions

Read all opening statement transcripts at our Opening Arguments blog.

Monday July 13, 2009

I would note, for the record, we are considering the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to be a justice of the United States Supreme Court. The Constitution is interesting in this regard. We have over 300 million Americans but only 101 people get a chance to say who's going to be on the Supreme Court. First and foremost of the -- the president, this is President Obama, who made the nomination.

And then 100 senators have to stand in place of all 300 and almost 20 million Americans in considering the appointment. The president has done his part. He's made an historic nomination. Now, the Senate has to do its part on behalf the Senate people -- of the American people.

President Obama often quotes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s insight that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. Each generation of Americans has sought that arc towards justice. We have improved upon the foundation of our Constitution through the Bill of Rights, the Civil War Amendments, the 19th Amendment's expansion of the right to vote to women, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the 26th Amendment's extension of the right to vote to young people.

These actions have marked progress toward our more perfect union, and I believe this nomination can be another step along that path. Judge Sotomayor's journey to this hearing room is a truly American story. She was raised by her mother, Celina, and nurse in the South Bronx. Like her mother, Sonia Sotomayor worked hard. She graduated the valedictorian of her class at Blessed Sacrament and at Cardinal Spellman High School in New York.

She was a member of just the third class Princeton University in which women were included. She continued to work hard including reading classics that had been unavailable to her when she was younger and arranging tutoring to improve her writing.

She graduated summa cum laude, phi beta capa. She was awarded the M. Taylor Senior Pyne Prize for Scholastic Excellence at the university. I mention that's an honor that's given from outstanding merit.

After excelling at Princeton, she entered Yale Law School where she was an active member of the law school community. Upon graduation, she had many options, but she chose to serve her community in the New York District Attorney's Office. I might say, parenthetically, every one of us who've had the privilege to be a prosecutor knows what kind of a job that is and how hard it is.

There, she prosecuted murders, robberies, assaults, and child pornography. The first President Bush named her to the federal bench in 1992. She served as a trial judge for six years. President Clinton named her to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit where she served for more than ten years. She was confirmed each time by a bipartisan majority in the Senate.

Judge Sotomayor's qualifications are outstanding. She has more federal court judicial experience than any nominee to the United States Supreme Court in nearly a hundred years. She is the first nominee in well over a century to be nominated to three different federal judgeships by three different presidents. She is the first nominee in 50 years to be nominated to the Supreme Court after serving as both a federal trial judge and a federal appellate judge.

She will be the only current Supreme Court justice to have served as a trial judge. She is a prosecutor and a lawyer in private practice. She brings a wealth and diversity of experience to the Court. I hope all Americans are encouraged by Judge Sotomayor's achievements and by her nomination to the nation's highest court.

Hers is a success story in which all -- all Americans can take pride. Those who break barriers often face the added burden of overcoming prejudice, and it's been true in the Supreme Court.

Thurgood Marshall graduated first in his law school class. He was the lead counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He sat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. He served as a nation's top lawyer, the solicitor general of the United States. He won a remarkable 29 out of the 32 cases before the Supreme Court. But despite all of these qualifications and achievements, when he was before the Senate for his confirmation, he was asked questions designed to embarrass him, questions such as are you prejudice against the white people in the South.

I hope that's a time of our past. The confirmation of Justice Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish-American to be nominated to the High Court was a struggle ripe with anti-Semitism and carriages that he was a radical. The commentary at that time included questions about the Jewish mind and how its operations are complicated by altruism.

Likewise, the first Catholic nominee had to overcome the argument that, as a Catholic, he'd be dominated by the Pope.

We are in a different era, and I would trust that all members of this committee here today will reject the efforts of partisans and outside pressure groups that sought to create a caricature of Judge Sotomayor while belittling her record and achievements, her intelligence.

Let no one demean -- let no one demean this extraordinary woman, her excess (ph), her understanding of the constitutional duties she's faithfully performed for the last 17 years. I hope all senators will join together as we did when we considered President Reagan's nomination of Sandra Day O'Connor as the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court. There, every Democrat and every Republican voted to confirm her.

This hearing is an opportunity for Americans to see and hear Judge Sotomayor for themselves and to consider her qualifications. It's the most transparent confirmation hearing ever held. Our decisions and confirmation materials have been posted online and made publicly available. The record is significantly more complete than that available when we considered President Bush's nomination of John Roberts and Samuel Alito just a few years ago.

The judge's testimony will be carried live on several television stations, and also live via Webcast -- something that I have set up for the Judiciary Committee Web site.

Our review of her judicial record leads me to conclude she's a (inaudible) and restrained judge with a deep respect for judicial precedent and for the powers the other branches of the government, including the lawmaking role of the Congress. That conclusion is supported by a number of independent studies that have been made of her record. It shines through in a comprehensive review of her tough and fair record in criminal cases.

She has a deep understanding of the real lives -- the real lives -- of Americans, and the duty of law enforcement to help keep Americans safe, and the responsibility of all of us to respect the freedoms that define America.

Now, unfortunately, some have sought to twist her words and her record and to engage in partisan political attacks. Ideological pressure groups began attacking her even before the president made his selection. They then stepped up their attacks by threatening Republican senators who do not oppose her.

That's not the American way, and that should not be the Senate way.

In truth, we do not have to speculate about what kind of a justice she'll be, because we've seen what kind of a judge she has been. She is a judge in which all Americans can have confidence.

She has been a judge for all Americans. She'll be a justice for all Americans.

Our ranking Republican senator on this committee reflected on our confirmation process recently, saying, "What I found was the charges come flying in from right and left. They're unsupported and false. It's very, very difficult for a nominee to push back. So, I think we have a high responsibility to base any criticisms we have on a fair and honest statement of the facts. And that nominee should not be subjected to distortions of their records."

I agree with Senator Sessions. As we proceed, let no one distort the judge's record. Let's be fair to her and to the American people by not misrepresenting her views.

We are a country bound together by our magnificent Constitution. It guarantees the promise that our country will be a country based on the rule of law. In her service as a federal judge, Sonia Sotomayor has kept faith with that promise.

She understands it's not one law for one race or another. There's not one law for one color or another. There is not one law for rich and a different one for poor. There's only one law.

And, Judge, I remember so well. You sat in my office and you said that, ultimately and completely, a judge has to follow the law, no matter what their upbringing has been.

That's the kind of fair and impartial judging the American people expect. That's respect for the rule of law. But that's the kind of judge Judge Sotomayor has been. It's the kind of fair and impartial justice she'll be and the American people deserve.

Judge Sotomayor has been nominated to replace Justice Souter, whose retirement last month has left the Court with only eight justices. Justice Souter served the nation with distinction for nearly two decades on the Supreme Court with a commitment to justice, an admiration for the law and an understanding of the impact of the Court's decisions on the daily lives of ordinary Americans.

And I believe that Judge Sotomayor will be in the same mold, will serve as a justice in the manner of Sandra Day O'Connor, committed to the law and not to ideology.

In the weeks and months leading up to this hearing, I've heard the president and senators from both sides of the aisle make reference to the engraving over the entrance of the Supreme Court. I look at that every time I go up there. It's carved in Vermont marble, and it says, "Equal justice under law."

Judge Sotomayor's nomination keeps faith with those words.


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