Judge Sonia Sotomayor was asked some 583 questions during the course of four days’ of hearings on Capitol Hill. What new insights did the country gain about the woman who appears likely to become the nation’s first Hispanic Supreme Court justice?
One theme to emerge from wall-to-wall news media coverage of the hearing last week is that Judge Sotomayor gave few clues about her legal philosophy.
In its story, “A mechanic in a black robe,” the Los Angeles Times reported that Sotomayor depicted herself as a judge who would ” stick to precedent and never ‘make law.’ But in doing so she revealed almost nothing about the philosophy that would guide her on the high court.”
Was Sotomayor carefully following a calculated political strategy, the article asked, or was she mirroring the views of a lower-court judge who had not shaped broader legal views? The answer remained unclear.
In a New York Times article, Harvard Law School professor Laurence H. Tribe, an adviser to President Obama, used just one word–”nothing”– to say what the country had learned about Judge Sotomayor’s legal views. In fact, the week may have been notable for how little the nation learned about her, according to the Times.
With a deliberate delivery, Judge Sotomayor discussed precedents while declining to take a stand on legal questions that are unsettled, and she insisted she had to keep her mind open about potential future cases.
Despite the shortage of revelations about her legal philosophy, the hearing provided extensive fodder for political commentary.
Republicans, in perhaps the lone victory that they could declare from the hearing, cited Judge Sotomayor’s distancing herself from Obama’s use of empathy as a criterion for his nominees, according to the Wall Street Journal.
When she was asked if shared Obama’s view that empathy is the “critical ingredient” in deciding the hardest cases, she told Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., “I…wouldn’t approach the issue of judging the way the president does,” she said. “It’s not the heart that compels conclusions in cases, it’s the law.” Read the Wall Street Journal story here.
Republicans effectively “established lines in the sand for challenging any future nominee for the high court and tried to limit President Barack Obama’s hand if he gets another opportunity to pick a nominee,” the Associated Press reported in its news analysis, “GOP sets stage for future court battles.”
In addition to her statement on about empathy, Judge Sotomayor disagreed with the view of some liberals that the Constitution is a “living” document–with a meaning that changes over the years–and that law from foreign lands should be used in reaching judicial decisions.
A Politico analysis suggested that the political bases of both Democratic and Republican parties fretted after last week’s hearing that they had missed an opportunity to score political points.
For liberals, Politic0 reported, there was concern that Judge Sotomayor’s approach “cost the Democratic party a critical opportunity to effectively express and advocate for its bedrock judicial philosophies.” Conservatives, meanwhile, were asking, “If Republicans won’t fight tooth-and-nail to derail a Supreme Court nominee they find out of the mainstream, what will they fight over?”
In response to Senate questioners, the nominee spent time disavowing her “wise Latina” remark from a past speech. She had voiced in 2001 her “hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male [judge] who hasn’t lived that life.”
Despite all the furor over that remark, one newspaper has now used the same phrase in backing Judge Sotomayor for the high court. “Whatever else her televised testimony demonstrated,” a Los Angeles Times editorial said, “it showed that a woman who has celebrated her Puerto Rican heritage also has excelled at the highest level in a profession still dominated by white men. The symbolism of that fact can’t be underestimated, especially in California, where more than a third of the population identifies as Latino.”
Across the country, the Washington Post backed her nomination as deserving of “widespread support.” In an editorial headlined “Confirm Sonia Sotomayor,” the Post said it had called for confirmation in 2005 of John G. Roberts Jr. as chief justice, saluting his “professional qualifications of the highest caliber, a modest conception of the judicial function . . . [and] a strong belief in the stability of precedent.” The same description could be used, the Post said, for Judge Sotomayor.
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