Sotomayor To Answer Judiciary Panel's Questions

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor is back before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday. She listened to hours of comments at her confirmation hearing Monday before getting a chance to give her own opening statement. Senators of both parties praised her personal accomplishments.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

One big assignment for a Supreme Court nominee is to avoid making mistakes. And in that sense, Sonia Sotomayor had an easy first day of her confirmation hearing. For most of the day, she wasn't asked to say a thing.

INSKEEP: She sat like a prop at the witness table, while senators made opening statements. Some senators did lay out concerns about the nominee, and she got to answer in her prepared statement. Today, the real work begins.

MONTAGNE: Each senator on a key committee gets half an hour to ask her questions.

Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

Unidentified Man: Please swear the testimony you're about to give before the committee will be the truth, the whole truth…

NINA TOTENBERG: Just before 3:00 o'clock in the afternoon yesterday, with cameras clicking wildly, Sonia Sotomayor finally was sworn in and got a chance to speak. She spoke of her up-from-the-projects life story, how her father died when she was nine, leaving her mother to support the family. She spoke of her hard work in parochial school, her scholarships to Princeton and Yale Law School.

She spoke of her life as a big city prosecutor in New York, then as a corporate litigator and of her 17 years as a federal trial and appellate court judge. In the hours before, Republicans had taken their whacks at Sotomayor, focusing their attention mainly on speeches in which she said that a wise Latina judge might, in some cases, reach a better conclusion than a white male judge. Assistant Republican leader Jon Kyl of Arizona.

Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona; Assistant Minority Leader): From what she has said, she appears to believe that her role is not constrained to objectively decide who wins based on the weight of the law, but rather who in her personal opinion should win.

TOTENBERG: The Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican, Jeff Sessions of Alabama.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): We reached a fork in the road, and there are stark differences. I will not vote for and no senator should vote for an individual nominated by any president who believes it is acceptable for a judge to allow their personal background, gender, prejudices or sympathies to sway their decision in favor of or against parties before the court.

TOTENBERG: Sotomayor's face remained impassive. Her own remarks, prepared in advance, anticipated the criticism.

Judge SONIA SOTOMAYOR (Federal Court Judge; Nominee, Supreme Court): In the past month, many senators have asked me about my judicial philosophy - simple: fidelity to the law. The task of a judge is not to make law. It is to apply the law.

TOTENBERG: While Republicans were on the attack, Democrats defended Sotomayor, noting that she has more experience as a federal judge than any other nominee in a hundred years. Her ideology, they said, is mainstream, her life the personification of the American dream. When the debate wasn't about her, it was about President Obama, mocked by Republicans for his stated desire to have a Supreme Court nominee with empathy.

Republicans repeatedly cited the testimony of Chief Justice John Roberts at his confirmation hearing, that a judge's job is to call balls and strikes. Democrats responded that if deciding difficult constitutional questions were that mechanical, there would be no need for a Supreme Court. A computer could do the job. Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse.

Senator SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (Democrat, Rhode Island): The liberties in our Constitution have their boundaries defined in the gray and overlapping areas by informed judgment. None of this is balls and strikes.

TOTENBERG: The debate was almost entirely scripted yesterday, with Republican Lindsey Graham the only senator off message. Elections, he said, ought to matter, and Republicans lost the last one. Turning to Sotomayor, he added…

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's some of my colleagues on the other side that voted for Judge Roberts and Alito knowing they would 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOTENBERG: Today, the scripts get put aside and Sotomayor has to answer questions. Some maybe insulting, but she will have to keep her game face on, not get irritated, and appear to cooperate without giving her critics anything to work with. If her opening statement is any guide, she plans to say as little as possible.

Nina Totenberg NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And you can track today's questions and answers by checking the latest news at npr.org.

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Sotomayor: 'Fidelity To The Law' Guides Me

Opening Statements: Transcripts

Sotomayor's mother, Celina Sotomayor, and brother, Juan Luis Sotomayor i i

Sotomayor's mother, Celina Sotomayor, and brother, Juan Luis Sotomayor, listen to speakers at her confirmation hearing. Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
Sotomayor's mother, Celina Sotomayor, and brother, Juan Luis Sotomayor

Sotomayor's mother, Celina Sotomayor, and brother, Juan Luis Sotomayor, listen to speakers at her confirmation hearing.

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

On The Blog

NPR's news blog, The Two-Way, will be monitoring the hearings for key moments and news.

On the first day of her confirmation hearing to the Supreme Court, Judge Sonia Sotomayor described her judicial philosophy in four words: "fidelity to the law."

"In each case I have heard," Sotomayor told the Senate Judiciary Committee, "I have applied the law to the facts at hand."

Some senators have said Sotomayor compromises her impartiality as a judge by relying too heavily on her personal background. Sotomayor said to them, "My personal and professional experiences help me listen and understand, with the law always commanding the result in every case."

In her opening statement, Sotomayor described her personal and professional history at length, calling her life story "uniquely American."

The statement capped a day in which senators drew the battle lines for hearings to confirm President Obama's first Supreme Court nominee.

Democrats focused on Sotomayor's judicial record and life story. Republicans, meanwhile, criticized Sotomayor's speeches and other comments off the bench, as they sought to turn the hearing into a broader referendum on the proper role of a judge.

Sotomayor spent much of the day in listening mode, as senators raked over her judicial record. Her supporters sat behind her, including her 81-year-old mother. When Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy invited Sotomayor to introduce her family at the start of the day, she replied, "If I introduced everybody that's family-like, we'd be here all morning."

Qualifications Praised

Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, described Sotomayor's nomination as "another step along the path" to a more perfect union.

If confirmed, Sotomayor — currently a judge on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals — would be the first Hispanic and the third woman ever to serve on the Supreme Court. Leahy compared her nomination to landmark civil rights developments such as the 1965 Voting Rights Act and warned opponents not to "demean this extraordinary woman."

He praised Sotomayor's qualifications, noting that she has "more federal judiciary experience than any nominee to the Supreme Court in nearly 100 years."

"In truth, we do not have to speculate about what kind of a justice she will be, because we have seen the kind of judge she has been. She is a judge in which all Americans can have confidence. She has been a judge for all Americans and will be a justice for all Americans," Leahy said.

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham expressed what many senators have said privately. "Unless you have a complete meltdown, you're going to get confirmed," he said.

Concerns Over Impartiality

While Democrats described Sotomayor's nomination as a fulfillment of the American dream, critics questioned Sotomayor's impartiality, asking whether her ethnicity and gender have exerted too much of an influence over her judicial philosophy.

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the committee's ranking Republican, said he plans to ask about Sotomayor's comment that a "wise Latina woman" would make better decisions in some cases than a white man who has not had the same experiences.

People "assume the nominee misspoke," said Sessions, "but the nominee did not misspeak. She is on record as making the statement at least five times over the course of a decade."

"I'm afraid our system will only be further corrupted as a result of President Obama's views that in tough cases, the critical ingredient for a judge is 'the depth and breadth of one's empathy,'" Sessions said.

Other GOP senators echoed similar concerns. Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa said to Sotomayor, "In one speech, you doubted that a judge could ever be truly impartial."

Leahy said such concerns "sought to create a caricature of Judge Sotomayor."

"As we proceed, let no one distort the judge's record," Leahy said.

'Entire Record' On The Table

New York Democrat Sen. Charles Schumer said Sotomayor's record reflects "that she is in the mainstream. She has agreed with Republican colleagues 95 percent of the time."

But Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch noted that Sotomayor's role on the Supreme Court will be less constricted than her role as a lower court judge. She "will help change the very precedents that today bind her as a circuit court of appeals judge," said Hatch. For that reason, he said, senators must examine "her entire record, her speeches and articles, as well as her judicial decisions."

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, was one of the few Democrats to defend the role of empathy and personal experience in a judge. "The empathy President Obama saw in you has a constitutionally proper place" in the courtroom, said Whitehouse.

The hearings will last several days, with questioning of Sotomayor scheduled to begin on Tuesday.

At several points during Monday's hearing, anti-abortion protesters interrupted the proceedings and were escorted from the room.

Opponents Face Delicate Task

As Republicans challenge Sotomayor, they walk a difficult tightrope. Hispanics are the fastest-growing voting group in the United States. Republicans must be careful not to alienate Latinos, who strongly support Sotomayor, even as Republican senators question Sotomayor's judicial philosophy.

Sen. Jon Kyl, a Republican from Arizona, captured this tension in his opening statement.

"I would hope that every American is proud that a Hispanic woman has been nominated to sit on the Supreme Court," said Kyl, but "we must evaluate Judge Sotomayor's fitness to serve on the merits, not on the basis of her ethnicity."

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