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Sotomayor's Speeches Unnerve Republicans

New America Media, News Report, Gebe Martinez Posted: Jul 13, 2009

WASHINGTON -- As the Senate Judiciary Committee began debating today whether Sonia Sotomayor can or should ignore her gender and ethnicity in deciding cases if she is confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court, senators tussled over whether the current white male-dominated court is already practicing conservative activism.

Liberal versus conservative ideology overshadowed legal philosophy, as senators opened hearings on the first-ever nomination of a Hispanic to the U.S. Supreme Court and, in the process, revived the ghosts of past contentious judiciary nominations battles.

Democrats lauded Sotomayors rags-to-robes biography, while her Republican critics argued the issue is not her ethnicity, but her past comments in which she maintained that a wise Latina might render a better legal decision than a white male because of her life experiences.

If a compelling life story were the main criteria, Miguel Estrada would be on the court today, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, pointedly noted, referring to the Hispanic attorney, whose 2001 nomination by former President George W. Bush to a federal appeals court was blocked by Democrats.

Republicans lingering bitter feelings over the Estrada battle spilled over into the Sotomayor hearings. Had Estrada been confirmed, there was wide expectation that he would have become the first Hispanic nomination to the high court by Bush.

President Obamas election and the Democratic control of the Senate leave Republicans with little chance of blocking Sotomayor, who currently sits on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Unless you have a complete meltdown, you are going to get confirmed, conceded Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who also brought up the failed Estrada nomination.

My Republican colleagues who vote against you, I assure you, could vote for a Hispanic nominee. They just feel unnerved by your speeches and by some of the things that youve said and some of your cases, Graham said.

Referring to the wise Latina comment, Graham added, If I had said anything remotely like that, my career would have been over.

Sotomayors speeches, combined with Obamas preference for a justice who shows empathy and can identify with peoples hopes and struggles, has sparked a vigorous debate over whether she will be a liberal judicial activist.

In her own opening testimony, Sotomayor said her casework shows that her judicial philosophy is to apply the law, not make the law. She barely addressed the controversy that her wise Latina comments have generated, stating simply: My personal and professional experiences help me listen and understand, with the law always commanding the result in every case.

Democrats contended that all justices carry their pasts into the court, and Sotomayor is a mainstream jurist.

I do not believe that Supreme Court justices are merely umpires calling balls and strikes. Rather, I believe that they make the decisions of individuals who bring to the court their own experiences and philosophies, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

However, Republicans are ready to vigorously question Sotomayor under oath, beginning Tuesday.

The ranking Republican on the committee, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, said Sotomayors judicial philosophy is different from what she stated.

I will not vote forno senator should vote foran individual nominated by any President who believes it is acceptable for a judge to allow their own personal background, gender, prejudices, or sympathies to sway their decision in favor of, or against, parties before the court, Sessions said. In my view, such a philosophy is disqualifying.

But as Republicans began labeling her as a liberal judicial activist, Democrats questioned the definition of activist.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., was among those who argued that the court, under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts, had not decided cases with the modesty or humility that was promised when Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito were nominated by Bush.

For all the talk of modesty and restraint, the right-wing Justices of the Court have a striking record of ignoring precedent, overturning congressional statutes, limiting constitutional protections, and discovering new constitutional rights, Whitehouse said.

The current court is activist because of its disregard for legal precedent and willingness to override congressional intent of the laws, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., maintained.

At this point, perhaps we should all accept that the best definition of a 'judicial activist' is a judge who decides a case in a way you don't like, Feingold added.

Now, with Obama making the nominations, that is what Republicans are coming to terms with.

Gebe Martinez, a veteran Washington journalist, is a regular contributing columnist for Politico and a frequent lecturer and commentator on the policy and politics of Capitol Hill.

Related Articles:

GOP Walks Thin Line in Sotomayor Hearings

A Latina Supreme Court Judge Could Soothe Hispanics

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