Sotomayor’s Judgment Day

There is little question that Sonia Sotomayor will be confirmed. But it is important for the White House and Democrats to do it right and set the tone for an even bolder pick the next time.

Getty Images
Getty Images

As confirmation hearings for Judge Sonia Sotomayor begin before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, it’s probably best to keep some perspective on the significance of the proceedings.

Unless there’s a violent crime in her past, Judge Sotomayor will be confirmed as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. Given Al Franken’s recent seating as the 60th Democratic vote in the Senate, it’s a numerical certainty that a nominee approved by Democrats will be confirmed. This reality will not stop Republicans from doing their best to drag Judge Sotomayor’s name through the mud and to paint her as a dangerous, racially driven, judicial activist.

In fact, Republicans have been “workshopping” their Sotomayor strategy over the past two weeks, staging mini-rehearsals in an attempt to figure out which tactic will most excite their base, not alienate Latino voters and refocus the seriously adrift Republican Party. Parts have been handed out to key players on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, is to bring the intellectual challenge. He’s been practicing with a cleverly conceived “Daily Question for Judge Sotomayor” on his Web site. Many of the questions posed are surprisingly substantive, and the explanatory text that accompanies each question is a good way to get his constituents and sympathetic journalists up to speed on the dynamics of Republican resistance to Judge Sotomayor’s nomination.

It’s not that Cornyn’s has the most intellectual firepower of the Republicans on the committee, it just that he’s the GOP senator from the state with the largest Latino population; so he can’t afford to look like he’s disrespecting Judge Sotomayor. It was Cornyn—not known as Mr. Conciliation—who forcefully condemned Newt Gingrich’s initial inflammatory rhetoric after Sotomayor’s nomination was announced. You don’t win over many Mexican-American voters in Texas when you pal around with guys who try to brand the first Hispanic Supreme Court nominee as a “Latina racist.”

Dewy-eyed and honey-tongued Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is probably the brightest of the bunch, and he’s also the most personable. So he’ll ask tough questions, but he’ll also provide the compliments, the sugary acknowledgments of Judge Sotomayor’s accomplishments and remarkable family story. He’s good at this, although his awkward 2006 attempt to rehabilitate then-Judge Samuel Alito from charges of participation in an anti-affirmative action organization by asking, “Are you a bigot?” famously sent Mrs. Alito fleeing the committee’s chamber in tears. Graham’s a smart lawyer, so he’ll be able to get his digs in without sounding shrill. And his Southern charm will provide an air of courtliness, and, because Judge Sotomayor is a woman, the Republicans will need to avoid the appearance of engaging in an overly aggressive sexist attack.