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Sotomayor hearings begin with debate over judges' role

Senators drew the battle lines early in confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court nominee.

By Staff writer / July 13, 2009

Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor smiles on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Gerald Herbert/AP

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Sharp battle lines were quickly drawn between Democrats and Republicans on the first day of Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

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Even before Judge Sotomayor delivered her own introductory remarks Monday, senators on both the right and the left sought to frame the historic hearings as part of a broader debate over the proper role of American judges.

Some Republicans portrayed Sotomayor as a judicial activist with a liberal agenda, basing their assessment on some of her public statements. In an often-quoted 2001 lecture, she stated that her background as a “wise Latina woman” might help her make better decisions as a judge than white male judges.

Democrats downplayed the significance of that and other of her statements. They fired back by attacking Chief Justice John Roberts and his analogy, during his own confirmation hearings, likening a judge to an umpire who merely calls balls and strikes.

“I do not believe that Supreme Court justices are merely umpires calling balls and strikes,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California. “Rather, I believe that they make the decisions of individuals who bring to the court their own experiences and philosophies.” She said that by her count, the chief justice and Justice Samuel Alito had disregarded or overturned legal precedents in eight different cases.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York urged his fellow senators to compare Chief Justice Roberts’ tenure on the high court with Sotomayor’s tenure on the appeals court. “By any objective view of Judge Sotomayor,” he said, “she called balls and strikes more closely than did Roberts.”

In rare moment of levity, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina told the nominee bluntly: “Unless you have a complete meltdown, you are going to get confirmed.”

But generally the mood of the hearing was businesslike, with Sotomayor weathering the ordeal with a straight face and an occasional smile.

Republicans question need for 'empathy'

Republicans repeatedly criticized President Obama’s stated goal of seeking judges with “empathy” for "people's hopes and struggles." They questioned how the concept of empathetic judges could coexist with the well-known portrayal of a blindfolded Lady Justice.

Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) said the Sotomayor nomination posed a stark choice for the US. “I believe our legal system is at a dangerous crossroads,” he said.

“Down one path is the traditional American legal system … where judges impartially apply the law to the facts without regard to their own personal views,” he said. “Down the other path lies a brave new world where judges are free to decide what facts they choose to see. In this world, a judge is free to push his or her own political and social agenda.”

Democrats tout her record

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont pointed to Sotomayor’s record of 17 years of service as a US district judge and federal appeals court judge. “Unfortunately, some have sought to twist her words and her record to engage in partisan political attacks,” Mr. Leahy said. “We do not have to speculate about what kind of a justice she will be because we have seen the kind of judge she has been.”

He added: “She has been a judge for all Americans, and will be a justice for all Americans.”

The comments came during what many senators acknowledged were historic hearings. If confirmed, Sotomayor will become the first Hispanic to sit on the highest US court.

In addition to becoming the 111th justice on the high court, she would also be the first jurist of Puerto Rican heritage and only the third woman to serve on the Supreme Court.