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Sotomayor Hearings Set To Begin

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Sotomayor Hearings Set To Begin

Law

Sotomayor Hearings Set To Begin

Sotomayor Hearings Set To Begin

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Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor takes the stand Monday as her confirmation hearings begin on Capitol Hill. Slate legal eagle Dahlia Lithwick talks to NPR's Guy Raz about what we can expect as the hearings progress — and whether newly minted Judiciary Committee member Al Franken will get off any good jokes.

GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Sonia Sotomayor takes the stand tomorrow, not in court, where she usually presides, but in Congress. President Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court begins her confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee tomorrow morning.

Republicans promise she won't get a free ride. Here's Texas Senator John Cornyn, speaking to Fox News today.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): It's a great American success story to overcome adversity and humble origins, but that's not the, sort of, questions we're going to talk about. We're going to talk about her judicial philosophy.

In the seven weeks since Sotomayor's nomination, both friends and foes have sifted through her judicial record and her public comments, searching for clues that could reveal how she'd approach the job of Supreme Court justice, so has Dahlia Lithwick, slate.com legal columnist. And she's with us to preview the hearings.

Hi, Dahlia.

Ms. DAHLIA LITHWICK (Legal Columnist, Slate.com): Hi, Guy.

RAZ: So, Dahlia, it feels like no stone in her past has been left unturned any chance of a gotcha moment here?

Ms. LITHWICK: You know, I think it probably depends on how you want to define gotcha. It seems to me there's two classes of issues we're going to look at. One is this narrow issue of her legal rulings for jurisprudential history. We have an amazing 18-year record for this woman. So that's a lot of cases to read through, and I think on that front, there are no surprises. Everyone has picked through her record. We know what we know, and there's really not much in there that's going to be controversial.

I think the other class of issues that is going to really possibly be controversial is this whole identity politics war that's been roiling around the nomination from the beginning, and that goes to her comments about wise Latina women. It goes to her comments about judges making policy.

So I don't think that on the paper record, there's going to be a gotcha moment. I think they're going to try very hard to rile her up and make her look like she's somehow unhinged and too much of a woman and too much of a minority to think straight. So I think that's going to be the subtext of an otherwise probably pretty pedestrian hearing.

RAZ: You say a pedestrian hearing, and there will, I'm sure, be some pushback, but it seems, Dahlia, so far it's been almost a coronation. I mean, it seems as if the, sort of, the conservative critique you normally expect to hear hasn't really been getting out there much.

Ms. LITHWICK: Well, I think that's because, if you recall, the initial pushback not from the conservatives in the Senate but from conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Tom Tancredo, was so awful, that there's been a huge retreat from that.

Don't forget: Tom Tancredo compared Sotomayor's membership in La Raza to membership in the KKK. We were hearing that she was a racist, that she was unhinged. And it was so toxic, I think, that the GOP in the Senate had to quickly, quickly distance themselves from that.

RAZ: There are legitimate reasons for opposing her confirmation.

Ms. LITHWICK: I think that's right, and I think why you're going to hear so very much this week about that New Haven firefighter's case, the Ritchie case about reverse discrimination in the promotion practices in the New Haven fire department.

Here we have a very strange situation where the Supreme Court essentially just rebuffed Sotomayor's reading of that case and of that law right before her hearings. It's a way to talk about race. It's a way to talk about whether she puts on a thumb on the scale for minorities.

And so Ritchie becomes a template with which you can talk about all these other complicated issues without directly saying Sotomayor is a racist.

RAZ: Let's talk about the politics here for a moment because given all the endorsements she's received, she's actually been endorsed by Ken Starr. And won't it be hard for conservatives in the Senate, for Republicans in the Senate to sort of criticize her without risking a backlash?

Ms. LITHWICK: Well, that's why you get this really interesting witness list that's been produced. The Senate minority leadership released their list of who was going to be witnesses. This is not at all connected to Sotomayor. What you have is a representative of the NRA who's going to say she's not good on guns. You're going to have a representative who is going to talk about abortion. But if you actually look at her record, her record on guns is absolutely uninteresting. Her record on abortion is minimalist, if not boring.

So then, I think having these witnesses here becomes a dog whistle. It's a way to talk to your base - to say to your base we know these are the issues you care about. We're convinced that even though there's no objective evidence that she's bad on our issues, we're going to talk about it. Her actual written record is immaterial.

RAZ: And even a former baseball pitcher will be called to the witness stand.

Ms. LITHWICK: That's right. David Cone is one of the witnesses in an all-star list.

RAZ: He's a former pitcher for the Mets.

Ms. LITHWICK: Correct, third-party witness. He's going to say hey, she settled the baseball strike in the mid-'90s, and that's great. But another celebrity is actually going to be on the Judiciary Committee because Al Franken takes his seat as a member of the Judiciary Committee. And so we have a serious possibility of a "Saturday Night Live" interaction between him and David Cone, although I predict it will be very sober and very restrained, and no jokes will be made.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Dahlia Lithwick of slate.com. Dahlia, thanks for your time, and enjoy the hearings.

Ms. LITHWICK: Thank you so much for having me.

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