WASHINGTON – Senators had to be very creative if they wanted to avoid repeating questions to Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor during her nomination hearings.
Each of the 19 members of the Senate Judiciary Committee had 30 minutes to question Sotomayor Tuesday and Wednesday,and most took the entire time allotted to them.
This meant that by the time the most junior senators got their chances,there was little that hadn't already been said – often more than once. A few did manage to differentiate themselves.
Realizing that repeated questions were becoming a problem,Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy,D-Vt.,requested more than once that senators refrain from asking questions that had “already been asked and answered.”
Surprisingly,given that there are fewer of them on the committee,Senate Republicans seemed to repeat the same topics more often than did Democrats. Several of their questions concerned controversial statements Sotomayor has made and her views on abortion and gun rights.
Perhaps the most discussed topic was Sotomayor's comment that “a wise Latina woman” would make better judging decisions than a white man because of her experiences. Four of the seven Republican senators – Jeff Sessions,Ala.,Jon Kyl,Ariz.,Lindsay Graham,S.C.,and John Cornyn,Texas – asked the nominee to explain the statement.
She gave similar answers to each,saying that the statement was part of a speech meant to inspire Hispanic students and that she had been attempting a play on a famous quote by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. She admitted that the wordplay “fell flat.”
As to the 2nd Amendment,many Republicans were concerned about her ruling in Maloney v. Cuomo,which upheld New York's right to ban nunchaku,a weapon made by linking two sticks. The judge was questioned repeatedly about what she meant when she said the right to bear arms is not considered “a fundamental right.”
Some Democrats who took their turns later in the round of questioning avoided repetition by asking very specific questions about Sotomayor's law experience. Sen. Ted Kaufman,D-Del.,for example,asked about her decision to go into commercial practice after being a prosecutor and how that job had helped her in her judgeships.
Other senators chose to stay away from the hot-button issues by focusing on different legal questions. The committee's most junior member,Sen. Al Franken,D-Minn.,asked what she thought about net neutrality,while Graham wanted her opinion on releasing enemy combatants in the War on Terror.
Some Democrats used their time simply to praise Sotomayor and combat criticism of her. Sen. Charles Schumer,D-N.Y.,who introduced the judge on Monday,asked her several questions about cases in which she had made difficult decisions and ruled against sympathetic litigants. He used those questions to point out that she had followed the law,despite her empathy for the parties involved.
Leahy sympathized with the judge over her decision in Ricci v. DeStefano. He said that she had followed precedent in deciding the city of New Haven was justified in throwing out promotion test results it feared could result in a racial discrimination lawsuit. After the Supreme Court overturned that decision in June,Sotomayor was criticized for allowing discrimination against the white firefighters who had scored well. Leahy said if she had not followed precedent,she would have been called a judicial activist.
“You're damned if you do,damned if you don't,” he said.