Sotomayor Confirmation Hearings Open

Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor listened to hours of senators' comments at her confirmation hearing Monday before giving her own opening statement. Tuesday, senators begin asking questions.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand in California.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

I'm Robert Siegel in Washington, D.C., and starting today, Madeleine is co-hosting the program for about five weeks.

BRAND: And really, really happy to be here, thousands of miles away from you, Robert, though, in Culver City, California - and that's just next door to L.A.

SIEGEL: But we'll begin this hour here in Washington, where confirmation hearings began for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. It was all opening statements today and no questioning.

BRAND: The two parties reversed their roles from a few years ago. Back then, Republicans defended their Supreme Court nominees. They stressed qualifications and didn't talk much about ideology.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports on how the two parties laid out their positions today.

NINA TOTENBERG: Judge Sotomayor entered the hearing room walking in a cast for her broken ankle, escorted by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy. After introducing her family, she spent the morning as a prop while senators delivered their opening statements.

Republicans by and large were on the attack, suggesting Sotomayor is ideologically unsuited for the Supreme Court. At the same time, Democrats praised her as uniquely qualified with more experience as a federal judge than any other nominee to the court in 100 years.

Chairman Leahy led off, noting that Sotomayor is the first Hispanic Supreme Court nominee. Other firsts: Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American, Louis Brandeis, the first Jew, were questioned about whether they could be fair, Leahy observed.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): We're in a different era. And I would trust that all members of this committee here today will reject the efforts of partisan and outside pressure groups who sought to create a caricature of Judge Sotomayor while belittling her record and her achievements, her intelligence. Let no one demean this extraordinary woman.

TOTENBERG: Republicans, however, were not about to be warned off. To a man, they said they were troubled by Sotomayor's statements that a Latina woman might make some better decisions than a white male judge. And they link those comments to Sotomayor's participation in a decision rejecting claims of reversed discrimination by white firefighters in New Haven - a decision reversed by the Supreme Court last month by a five to four vote. Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the committee, spoke bluntly to the nominee.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): Call it empathy, call it prejudice or call it sympathy, but whatever it is, it's not law. In truth, it's more akin to politics, and politics has no place in the courtroom. Some will respond, Judge Sotomayor would never say it's acceptable for a judge to display prejudice in a case. But I regret to say, judge, that some of your statement that I'll outline seemed to say that clearly.

TOTENBERG: Judge Sotomayor sitting at the witness table showed no emotion, a soft smile never leaving her face. Other Republicans made similar comments. Here for instance, is assistant Republican leader Jon Kyl of Arizona.

Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): The factors that will influence her decisions apparently include her gender and Latina heritage and foreign legal concept that, as she said, get her creative juices going.

TOTENBERG: Democrats portrayed the Republican critic as political posturing. If you're looking for judicial activism and political tilting, they said, just look at recent Republican appointees to the court - appointees like Chief Justice John Roberts. Here's assistant Democratic leader Richard Durbin.

Senator RICHARD DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): When Chief Justice Roberts came before this committee in 2005, he famously said a Supreme Court justice is like an umpire calling balls and strikes. We have observed, unfortunately, that it's a little hard to see home plate from right field.

TOTENBERG: About the only senator today, who stepped out of a scripted political role, was Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): This is mostly about liberal and conservative politics more than it is anything else. And having said that, there are some of my colleagues on the other side that voted for Judge Roberts and Alito, knowing they wound not have chosen either one of those. And I will remember that. Now, unless you have a complete meltdown, you're going to get confirmed.

TOTENBERG: I don't know how I'm going to vote, said Graham, but elections matter and we lost. Finally, this afternoon, after each senator had had his say, it was time for Judge Sotomayor to be sworn in.

Unidentified Man: Do you swear the testimony you're about to give before the committee be the truth…

TOTENBERG: Sotomayor quickly traced her now well-known up-from-the-projects biography: the death of her father when she was nine and her mother's heroic role in raising Sonia and her brother.

Judge SONIA SOTOMAYOR (Supreme Court Nominee): On her own, my mother raised my brother and me. She taught us that the key to success in America is a good education. And she set the example, studying alongside my brother and me at our kitchen table, so that she could become a registered nurse. We worked hard. I poured myself into my studies at Cardinal Spellman High School, earning scholarships to Princeton University and then Yale Law School, while my brother went on to medical school.

TOTENBERG: And finally, before any questions were asked, Sotomayor sought to answer her critics.

Judge SOTOMAYOR: Throughout my 17 years on the bench, I have witnessed the human consequences of my decisions. Those decisions have not been made to serve the interest of any one litigant, but always to serve the larger interests of impartial justice. In the past month, many senators have asked me about my judicial philosophy - simple: fidelity to the law.

TOTENBERG: Tomorrow, the questioning of Sotomayor begins.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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