Sotomayor on track to easy Supreme Court confirmation

At her confirmation hearings this week, any ideological slugfest was avoided as the nominee stayed low-key and judicial.

Jason Reed/Reuters
Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor jokes with Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy before the fourth day of her confirmation hearing Thursday in Washington.

Sonia Sotomayor will win easy confirmation as the 111th justice on the US Supreme Court. The only remaining suspense is how many Republican senators vote for her.

Some analysts had anticipated her four-day Senate confirmation hearings this week might degenerate into an ideological slugfest over competing liberal-conservative views of proper judicial philosophy. But Judge Sotomayor, her White House handlers, and her Senate allies decided to focus instead on the task before them – winning a lifetime seat on the highest court in the land.

To do it, they presented a softer, gentler version of Sonia Sotomayor. She smiled. She was patient. And she demonstrated a willingness to backtrack on every edgy or provocative comment she’d ever uttered, including her now famous “wise Latina” speech.

Instead of fighting back or engaging in debate, she followed the example of other successful high-court nominees in recent years. She was vague, evasive, and quick to find common ground on unimportant side issues.

At the same time she worked to demonstrate a solid understanding of constitutional jurisprudence and to convey an appreciation of the limited but powerful role of judges in American government.

The real Sonia Sotomayor, the passionately engaged jurist famous for hurling devastating questions hard and fast at lawyers in her courtroom, stayed home.

Early in the hearings, Sotomayor turned her back on President Obama’s articulation of judicial excellence. The president had said he would appoint judges with “empathy,” jurists capable of understanding the world of a pregnant teen, a disabled worker, an African-American, the poor, the powerless.

Sotomayor said her background as the child of Puerto Rican parents in a Bronx housing project gave her valuable perspective. But she was quick to add that such insight would not influence the outcome of any case.

“We apply law to facts. We don’t apply feelings to facts,” she told Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona in response to a question about judicial empathy.

“Has there ever been a case in which you ruled in favor of a litigant simply because you were sympathetic to their plight?” Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York asked. "Never,” she replied.

She said that in 17 years as a federal trial judge and appeals-court judge, she always put personal feelings and sympathies aside to allow the law to command the result.

The message, repeated over and over, sounded familiar. It sounded a lot like the message delivered by John Roberts and Samuel Alito on their way to Senate confirmation.

Although there was never doubt that she’d be confirmed, the tone of the hearings shifted markedly by Thursday. Rather than questioning her as a prospective justice, several senators seemed to be lobbying her as the newest member of the high court. Sen. Arlen Specter (D) of Pennsylvania pushed hard for televising Supreme Court sessions, one of his pet proposals.

In the end, the hearings provided little real insight into what kind of justice Sotomayor will become, analysts say. Those answers will arrive soon enough – perhaps as early as September, when the Supreme Court is set to hear an important challenge to the federal campaign-finance law.

Once confirmed, Sotomayor will occupy the seat of retiring Justice David Souter. Court-watchers say she will probably vote with the high court’s liberal wing in ways similar to Justice Souter. As such, her confirmation is not expected to cause a sharp swing in the high court’s jurisprudence.

The nine-member court will continue to split 4 to 4 on hot-button social issues, with conservative-centrist Justice Anthony Kennedy often providing the fifth and deciding vote, analysts say.


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