Sotomayor Back For Another Round Of Questions

Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor returns to the Senate Judiciary committee Thursday for what is expected to be her fourth and final day on the witness stand. There were more questions about abortion on Wednesday.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. The subject and the tone swing rapidly as senators question Sonia Sotomayor this week.

MONTAGNE: Sometimes the mood is lighthearted. Lawmakers know she's favored to win confirmation.

INSKEEP: Sometimes the mood turns serious. Senators also know this is their only chance to put the nominee on the record before they vote on her lifetime appointment to a job where she can, among other things, overturn laws that they pass.

Here is NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG: Like the two Bush Supreme Court appointees before her, Sotomayor has followed a strategy of first take no risks and do no harm. And so while political opponents do everything that they can to force a real response or reaction, what they get is prepared generalities, a strong commitment to follow the law and genteel reminders that any substantive answer would be improper because whatever the issue is, it might come before the Supreme Court in the future. That was true on the abortion question, too, except for this wrinkle. Texas Republican John Cornyn asked about press reports that the White House had assured pro-choice groups that Sotomayor is an abortion rights supporter. How did the White House know that, he asked. And had the nominee been questioned on the subject?

Judge SONIA SOTOMAYOR (Federal Judge; Presidential Nominee for Supreme Court): I was asked no question by anyone, including the president, about my views on any specific legal issue.

NINA TOTENBERG: Cornyn then asked Sotomayor about a statement from her former law partner George Pavia.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): He's quoted in this article, saying, quote, �I can guarantee she'll be for abortion rights,� close quote. On what basis would Mr. Pavia say that, if you know?

Judge SOTOMAYOR: I have no idea, since I know for a fact I never spoke to him about my views on abortion - frankly, on my views on any social issue.

TOTENBERG: Moving on to gun rights, Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn asked whether people have a constitutional right to defend themselves. Under most state laws, they do, said Sotomayor, but it may depend on whether the danger is imminent.

Judge SOTOMAYOR: Please, I'm not - I don't want anybody to misunderstand what I'm trying to say. If I go home, get a gun, come back and shoot you, that may not be legal under New York law because you would have alternative ways to defend...

Sen. CORNYN: You'll have lots of �splaining to do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOTENBERG: Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar lightened the mood even more when she asked Sotomayor, a devoted Yankees fan, this question.

Senator AMY KLOBUCHAR (Democrat, Minnesota): All these guys have been asking about your baseball case and they've been talking about umpires and judges as umpires. Did you have a chance to watch the All-Star game last night? Because most of America didn't watch the replay of your hearing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. KLOBUCHAR: They might have been watching it.

Judge SOTOMAYOR: I haven't seen television...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Judge SOTOMAYOR: ...for a very long time. But I will admit that I turned it on for a little while.

Sen. KLOBUCHAR: Okay.

Judge SOTOMAYOR: Minnesota's other senator, Al Franken, in his debut performance as a Senate Judiciary Committee questioner, returned to the serious subject of abortion. He noted that Sotomayor had previously acknowledged the word abortion is not in the constitution.

Senator AL FRANKEN (Democrat, Minnesota): Are the words birth control in the constitution?

Judge SOTOMAYOR: No, sir.

Sen. FRANKEN: Are you sure?

Judge SOTOMAYOR: Yes.

Sen. FRANKEN: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. FRANKEN: Are the words privacy in the constitution, or the word?

Judge SOTOMAYOR: The word privacy is not.

Sen. FRANKEN: Uh-huh. Do you believe that the constitution contains a fundamental right to privacy?

Judge SOTOMAYOR: It contains, as has been recognized by the courts for over 90 years, certain rights under the liberty provision of the due process clause that extend to the right to privacy in certain situations. This line of cases started with a recognition that parents have a right to direct the education of their children.

TOTENBERG: Franken told Sotomayor that he shared with her a childhood love of the �Perry Mason� TV program, and he asked the nominee in which episode Mason's client was convicted.

Judge SOTOMAYOR: I know that I should remember the name of it, but I haven't looked at the episode...

Sen. FRANKEN: Didn't the White House prepare you for...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. FRANKEN: ...for that?

TOTENBERG: For the record, it was the �Case of the Deadly Verdict.�

(Soundbite of song, �Theme from Perry Mason�)

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of song, �Theme from Perry Mason�)

INSKEEP: There's no mystery as to how you can keep up with the proceedings when you check the day's news. Later today at npr.org, you will find live video of the hearing.

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To Confirm Sotomayor, Yawn. Rinse. Repeat.

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) i i

hide captionSen. Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, listens as Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor answers questions. The Sotomayor confirmation hearings have been a bit drier than those in recent history.

Karen Bleier/Getty Images
Sen. Al Franken (D-MN)

Sen. Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, listens as Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor answers questions. The Sotomayor confirmation hearings have been a bit drier than those in recent history.

Karen Bleier/Getty Images

Grain commodity trading contracts. Orange peels for animal feed. Goose bumps. Fendi. Securities law. The baseball All-Star game. And Perry Mason.

All were on the table Wednesday as her advocates worked to run out the clock on Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearing.

If Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee intended to finish off Sotomayor's critics by inducing boredom — and many privately suggested that was the point — consider the mission accomplished, or just about.

And the unflappable and increasingly confident nominee was a polished accomplice.

She deflected direct questions about abortion ("All I can say to you is what the court's done.").

She explained away a brief summary decision she joined in a controversial opinion that dismissed white firefighters' reverse discrimination case ("We can't handle the volume of our work if we write long decisions in every case.")

And, when encouraged by open-ended softball questions lobbed by the majority left-leaning members of the committee, she swung for the filibuster fences. (Ugh. Another baseball metaphor, but in keeping with another recurring theme of the week.)

The other themes? Here's a quick look at the view from both sides, and the takeaway Wednesday from the practiced and well-choreographed ritual.

Republicans On Sotomayor:

Sotomayor disses heroic firefighters.

She thinks people have different physiologies.

She gives shocking speeches about ethnicity and judgment that undermine her 17 years on the bench.

She might support a woman's right to abortion.

The National Rifle Association has reservations about her.

And some lawyers who have appeared before her think she's a pushy broad.

Democrats On Sotomayor:

Her mind is always open.

Jurors are heroes.

She was once a prosecutor.

Did they mention she was a prosecutor?

She is dispassionate when it comes to the law.

She loves facts, not hypotheticals.

She's tough on white-collar criminals and sends them to prison.

She believes in deference to each branch of government.

Hispanic chambers of commerce support her.

She supports voting rights.

Her life story gives Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island "goose bumps."

And she really, really wishes she was better at rhetorical flourishes.

The committee has a new celebrity in Minnesota's Democratic Sen. Al Franken, who apparently shares with Sotomayor a love of the old long-running courtroom drama Perry Mason.

But some Senate watchers were missing two former longtime Democratic committee members who could be counted on for hearings drama — or humor: Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, a civil rights firebrand who is battling cancer; and former Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, now vice president, whose verbosity approached legend.

But, for now, for Democrats and Sotomayor, boring is good.

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