Sonia Sotomayor's historic trial by Senate fire about to begin

She'll face tough questioning, but even Republicans expect her to be confirmed.

Charles Dharapak/AP File
Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor on Capitol Hill last month. She will be returning on Monday for the start of her confirmation hearings as the nation's first Hispanic justice.

On Monday, the curtain rises on one of the great moments in political theater: Senate confirmation hearings for a member of the Supreme Court of the United States. In this case the drama will be especially historic: Sonia Sotomayor is one of the few women ever nominated to join the highest court in the land, and she’s also the first Hispanic.

There’s a kabuki aspect to it.

Like nominees before her, Judge Sotomayor (who’s served on lower federal courts for the past 17 years) will avoid being pinned down on firecracker issues like abortion, affirmative action, and gun control. She’ll be pressed on her judicial philosophy and the hundreds of rulings she’s been part of over the years.

Senate Republicans will challenge President Obama’s first high court nominee -- one of the few ways the minority party can assert itself. Judiciary Committee member John Cornyn of Texas has been posting daily questions for Sotomayor on his web site. These are a sort of template for what can be expected in the formal committee room setting on Capitol Hill.

As part of their homework, senators (and reporters) have been poring over thousands of pages of documents, made available through the National Archives, relating to Sotomayor’s record.

Meanwhile, interest groups left, right, and center have been weighing in.

The National Rifle Association has expressed “very serious concerns” about Sotomayor’s nomination -- something that would be expected from the pro-gun group regarding just about anybody Obama nominated.

Perhaps surprisingly, women’s advocacy groups have generally been quiet.

"You don't want to do anything that would actually hurt her chances by making it seem like if we get this woman, she'll be sympathetic to women," Debbie Walsh, director of Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics, told the Associated Press. "Then she'd be called a sexist, and that doesn't help."

But absent some bomb-shell revelation, even GOP members of the Senate Judiciary Committee acknowledge that she’s likely to be confirmed.

''The only way she can get derailed is if she performs poorly next week,'' Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told the McClatchy News Service. He said he was still undecided, but added, "I honestly think I could vote for her.''

The American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary voted unanimously that Sotomayor is “well-qualified” (the highest rating) for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

But one of the raps on the nominee is that she is too abrasive with lawyers arguing their cases before her -- a “bear on the bench,” as she has described herself. Setting aside whether such criticisms are sexist, those who’ve been the target of her penetrating questions don’t necessarily agree.

“Her questions can lead some lawyers to wish they had been quizzed in a far more cuddly manner,” writes Floyd Abrams, one of the country’s most prominent lawyers, in a Wall Street Journal column. “But in my experience her questions are tough and fair, demanding and acute. One could say worse things about a judge.”

Sotomayor also has the endorsement of Republican Kenneth Starr, the former federal judge and independent counsel who led the Monica Lewinsky investigation that lead to the impeachment of former president Bill Clinton.

"I'm very much an admirer of her, and I'm supporting the nomination," Mr. Starr said last month at a conference at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "I think that's a very wise and sound nomination of our president."

The hearings will feature a variety of heavy-weight and potentially colorful witnesses, ranging from New Haven, Conn., firefighter Frank Ricci (who recently won his “reverse discrimination” case in the Supreme Court) to former Major League Baseball pitcher Dave Cone.

Let the show begin.
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