Sotomayor's Careful Means To High-Stakes Ends As senators wrapped up their questioning of Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor on Thursday, she remained to the end — and by design — as ideologically elusive as those who came before her. It's a script that partisan politics demands of court nominees.
NPR logo Sotomayor's Careful Means To High-Stakes Ends

Sotomayor's Careful Means To High-Stakes Ends

Special Coverage Of The Fourth Day Of Confirmation Hearings

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As senators on Thursday wrapped up their questioning of Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor, she remained to the end — and by design — as ideologically elusive as those who came before her.

And though politically necessary in these divisive times, the "reveal nothing" strategy stripped her four days before the Senate Judiciary Committee of drama that many hoped would accompany landmark hearings on the first Hispanic, and just the fourth woman, nominated to the high court in its nearly 220-year history.

After the ugliness from the far right that greeted her nomination by President Obama — she was accused of being a reverse racist, not up to par intellectually and a hot head, among other things — low key may have been the best key.

But Sotomayor's supporters, including those in the Hispanic community ardently following her singular journey, could be forgiven for quietly hoping for a dash of public ethnic and gender identification from the nominee — an acknowledgment of the momentousness of her journey.

The Less Said, The Better

But Sotomayor's careful means guaranteed the high-stake ends.

The script, long in play and perfected four years ago by now-Chief Justice John Roberts during his hearings, is one that partisan politics — if not the public — continues to demand of its court nominees.

Because it works: Republican leaders said Thursday that they won't use procedural moves to block Sotomayor. Her Senate confirmation vote is expected before Congress' August recess and in advance of the Supreme Court's fall term.

By wringing gender and ethnic identification from her history, by walking back her now-famous "wise Latina" comment, and distancing herself from her work on behalf of a Puerto Rican civil rights and legal defense organization, Sotomayor gave Republican senators with significant Hispanic constituencies an opportunity to vote for her — while reassuring their conservative base that they had fought the good fight.

Predictor Of Coming Fights?

The question of what Sotomayor's hearings may mean for coming battles is now being debated.

But if the recent past is any predictor, the answer seems simple: not much.

Each nomination battle is different, yet the same. Different because the nominee is new, the same because the well-funded nomination war machinery is vast, in place and will assert itself no matter who gets a presidential high-court nod.

Before Obama announced that Sotomayor would be his nominee, conservative groups vowed a full-on battle. Liberal groups did the same with Roberts in 2005, and again just months later, when President Bush followed with an equally conservative nominee in now-Justice Samuel Alito.

Republicans this week took on what they call Obama's "empathy standard" in evaluating judges. A line in the sand for coming nominees, conservatives say.

But Sotomayor repudiated the standard.

And Republicans found Sotomayor's 17-year, left-of-center judicial record difficult to attack, save for her joining in an appeals court decision that rejected a discrimination case pursued by white firefighters in New Haven, Conn.

Lines in the sand can be quickly erased by a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, which Democrats enjoy for now. And they can be wiped away by members of the loyal opposition who believe that presidents deserve wide latitude in choosing their high court justices.

Or, as GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said repeatedly this week: elections matter.

Making History

It took Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the irascible longtime member of the committee — and, until recently, a Republican — to say what Sotomayor could or would not say this week.

"The expectation would be that a woman would want to say something to assert her confidence in a country which denied women the right to vote for decades, where the glass ceiling has limited people, where there is still disparagement of people on ethnic background," Specter said Wednesday, admonishing his former GOP colleagues for making a "mountain out of a molehill" over the nominee's "wise Latina" comment.

His comments would later be echoed by other committee Democrats, including California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who noted that there are only 17 women in the 100-member U.S. Senate, and just one on the nine-member Supreme Court — at a time when 48 percent of law school graduates are women.

"We're making progress, but we're not there yet," Feinstein said.

But when Feinstein asked Sotomayor about being a role model for women and their empowerment, the nominee remained on her careful script.

"My career as a judge has shown me that, regardless of what my desires are, that my life, what I have accomplished, does serve as an inspiration for others," she said.

History will show there were no great teaching moments this week, no illuminating legal colloquies or grand or noisy gestures. Democrats and the nominee played defense.

But just as Obama's improbable journey to the White House forced Americans to have conversations about race they'd long avoided — and, in the process, confront their own feelings about race both overt and latent — so, too, will Sotomayor's careful, circumspect road to the high court.

Role model? Sotomayor wouldn't elaborate.

Just by being there, however, by working her way from the Bronx to Ivy League schools to prosecutor and judge, Sotomayor, no matter what kind of high court judge she proves to be, has shifted forever the expectations of what is possible for a Hispanic woman from modest means.

"I can't think of any greater service that I can give to the country," she said Thursday, "than be permitted the privilege of being a justice of the Supreme Court."