Senators Share Spotlight With Sotomayor

The Senate Judiciary Committee spent Tuesday questioning Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor about her judicial philosophy among other things. Dana Milbank, a columnist for The Washington Post, was at the hearing, and he tells Steve Inskeep it was a great opportunity for political theater.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. This week's hearings for a Supreme Court nominee offered an opportunity for senators to try to put Sonia Sotomayor on the record. It's also a great opportunity for political theater. Dana Milbank reviewed the performance for the Washington Post. He's in our studios.

Good morning.

Mr. DANA MILBANK (Washington Post): Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How does this compare to some other Supreme Court hearings you've attended?

Mr. MILBANK: Well, sadly I was born too late to see Bork and Thomas.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILBANK: And we were cheated out of Harriet Miers, was really hoping for that one. But you know, it was the best we could've hoped for considering that it's really a non-event. They have 60 Democrats in the Senate. She's going to get through unless she pretty much confesses to being Dick Cheney's secret legal advisor. So it really became an issue of senators basically leaving her alone. She's not saying anything. They just argued among themselves.

INSKEEP: Although there were some sharp questions, for example, about nunchucks. How did they come into the discussion?

Mr. MILBANK: Well, right. Because the nominee can't talk about, say, abortion or something on everybody's mind, they sort of speak in code. So the first question, the Chairman Patrick Leahy started asking about the Tarzan burglar, some guy who would swing into people's houses. She prosecuted this Tarzan fellow.

Apparently this got people in a swinging mood, because then Orrin Hatch of Utah started asking about a case involving nunchucks. Suddenly they were talking about martial arts and ninja warfare. And it's unusual to see Orrin Hatch, in his 70s from Utah…

INSKEEP: Although in fairness, I think we've reported on our air about nunchucks. I mean, it was a real case…

Mr. MILBANK: Not enough, Steve…

INSKEEP: …and it was getting into questions about gun control. I mean, people are trying to figure out her record.

Mr. MILBANK: Right. You have to speak in code because you can't really get at the heart of the issue, so let's talk nunchucks.

INSKEEP: Well, granting that the words were a little bit unsatisfying - even if you are going to a serious issue with a serious question, the nominee is coached - any nominee is coached to be careful about what they say. Did the body language among the senators and the nominee tell you anything?

Mr. MILBANK: Well, the senators were certainly frustrated. The nominee, if you sort of just looked at her face and her words, she seemed to be confident. But I noticed an excessive amount of blinking, which sort of indicated - the blink rate would go up considerably when the difficult questions. So when Leahy, the chairman, asked her about the wise Latina, I counted 247 blinks during that answer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Now, I may have missed a few. And I think the blink rate - BPM, blinks per minute - was about 100 for much of the morning.

INSKEEP: Okay. And that's some kind of judge of - I think that's whether you're a conservative or liberal judge, the number of blinks that you have.

Mr. MILBANK: It could've been maybe Morse code for the Democrats.

INSKEEP: Let me ask seriously, though, Dana Milbank, about the thing you just referred to though - the wise Latina remark. As we heard on Nina Totenberg's reporting from the hearing, Sonia Sotomayor said she referred to a wise Latina because she said that when she made that remark - that a wise Latina women would make a better judgment than a white man in some circumstances - she said she was playing off of Sandra Day O'Connor's remark that a wise old woman and a wise old man would reach the same conclusion. But didn't she actually say a wise Latina would make a better decision than somebody else?

Mr. MILBANK: That was the problem. It was originally misstated, I think purposely, by the chairman to try to sort of anodize it. But she said it was a rhetorical flourish and it was wrong. She didn't exactly say why.

So I think what she doesn't want to get - address the particular issue there that the Republicans are trying to get her to address. In fact, is the substance of that true? Are you better off because of your heritage?

INSKEEP: Do you believe that your heritage leads you to make…

Mr. MILBANK: Right. But she's got her formulation. I expect we'll hear it again today - rhetorical flourish. I think she learned that from Joe Biden.

INSKEEP: Did she try to rephrase this and simply say that lots of different people can have valuable experiences or did she simply say it's all about the law, background has nothing to do with it?

Mr. MILBANK: She tiptoed a little bit in that direction. I think the idea for her is less is more. Say as little as possible. In fact, the Republicans were begging her - Lindsey Graham was saying people make mistakes, you can admit to this. But she really doesn't want to go down that road.

INSKEEP: Dana Milbank, thanks for coming by.

Mr. MILBANK: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: He reports for the Washington Post.

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