Dan Balz's Take
Hearing Room Clashes Could Alter Political Environment
Updated 1:29 p.m.
By Dan Balz
Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings will play out against the backdrop of demographic changes that continue to alter the nation's politics. What drama exists this week is less the question of whether she will be confirmed than what the first Latina Supreme Court justice may contribute to those changing politics.
Though the old adage that the justices follow the election returns may still apply, grubby politics are not supposed to intrude on the dignified proceedings of the Supreme Court. But any barrier-shattering nomination brings with it broader political implications of which Democrats and Republicans are keenly aware.
President Obama's advisers said months ago he hoped to find a replacement for Justice David Souter who could both make history and lower the temperature of what have become judicial confirmations filled with partisan fireworks.
As the hearings open, he appears to have accomplished both goals. Every expectation is that the hearings will be civil. That hardly diminishes the political implications for both parties as senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee question Sotomayor this week.
Republicans have the greater burden. They must tread carefully this week, balancing their desire to use the hearings to frame a debate over legal philosophies with their concern that they do nothing to show ethnic insensitivity toward the fastest-growing minority group in the country.
Judicial conflicts of the past have been used to energize the political bases in both parties. Conservative Republicans around the country may be itching for, if not a real fight, a show of strength and a devotion to principles by their leaders in Washington. They got that Monday morning from Jeff Sessions, the new ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, who used his opening statement Monday to pointedly state his philosophical reservations about Sotomayor.
Session's reservations, shared by others in his party, include his concern over her assertion that a "wise Latina woman" would reach a better legal judgment than a white male, and disagreements over her views on affirmative action as shown in the New Haven firefighters case in which she was recently overturned by the high court. In his opening statement, Sessions framed the conservative case against Sotomayor.
Conservatives also object to the president's assertion that one of the attributes he wants in a Supreme Court justice is empathy. Does that, as some Republicans have responded, inevitably lead to a biased rendering of the law that unfairly favors one group over another?
Utah's Orrin Hatch and Arizona's Jon Kyl raised that issue Monday morning: how can a justice make sure he or she sets aside personal experiences and allegiances in interpreting the Constitution? Kyl argued that, as a Supreme Court justice, Sotomayor will be free from the restraints on any appeals court judge and was blunt in questioning whether she would be an even-handed interpreter of the law.
All of these are legitimate areas of inquiry for the Republicans. Sotomayor has been well prepped for these questions and her Democratic advocates on the Judiciary Committee began to make the case, as New York's Sen. Charles Schumer put it, that any fair reading of her record would result in the conclusion that she is in fact even-handed in her approach to the law. The size of Sotomayor's expected majority depends on how well she performs when she finally gets a chance to answer.
But in energizing the conservative base, Republicans almost certainly will face questions about whether their hearing-room strategy does damage to their efforts to appeal more broadly to Hispanics.
Simon Rosenberg, president of the Democratic-leaning think tank NDN, argued in an e-mail message Monday that his party has been far more deft at capitalizing on the nation's changing demographics and called the Sotomayor nomination another example of the party's recognition of the fact that America will soon be a majority-minority nation.
"If during the next few weeks the Republicans appear to be playing politics with race rather than raising legitimate issues about Sotomayor's judicial approach it could reinforce the deep impression that the Republican Party's anachronistic and intolerant approach to race and diversity is making them less capable of leading a very different and more racially diverse America of the early 21st century," he wrote.
Republicans contend that Democrats played politics with a well qualified Hispanic nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and paid no price for it. That came during President Bush's administration in the nomination of Honduran-born Miguel Estrada. Democrats in the Senate blocked the nomination, which was seen as a first step toward preparing Estrada for a possible nomination to the high court.
Instead, Republicans have seen their support among Hispanics decline during the past four years, from a high point during Bush's reelection victory to the disappointment of seeing Obama carry the Hispanic vote by roughly 2-1 over John McCain last November.
Republican strategist Greg Mueller, e-mailing from the conservatives' confirmation war room, argued that Sotomayor's philosophy is to the left of the country at large on issues of racial preferences and guns, among other issues. The danger, he said, is less for Republicans who oppose her nomination and more for Democrats from red states who support her.
Political strategist Matthew Dowd argued Monday that there is no historical evidence to suggest that Supreme Court nominations help or hurt a political party. He cites President George H.W. Bush's nomination of Clarence Thomas and President Ronald Reagan's nomination of Sandra Day O'Connor to note that there was no political gain among either African Americans or women from those nomination.
Presidents, he said, have suffered electoral losses after successful Supreme Court nomination battles. Obama, he said, should be far more worried about the unemployment rate than the confirmation hearings. "I don't think there's an upside for the Democrats or the Republicans in this. It's neutral at best for each of them politically," he said.
But he agreed with others that Republicans must show respect to Sotomayor as they begin their interrogation of her record and her views. Assuming Dowd's reading of history is correct, there's less for Democrats to gain than for Republicans to lose. Facing a demographic shift of significant proportions, their challenge this week will be to remain true to their principles and mindful of the how their party adapts to a new America.
Posted at 11:58 AM ET on Jul 13, 2009
Dan Balz's Take
Share This: Technorati | Tag in Del.icio.us | Digg This
Previous: Social Web Mobilizes for - and Against - Sotomayor | Next: Administration, RNC Skirmish Over the Economy
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: d_mchavez04 | July 14, 2009 6:02 PM
Posted by: VTDuffman | July 14, 2009 11:34 AM
Posted by: douglaslbarber | July 13, 2009 8:38 PM
Posted by: Bitter_Bill | July 13, 2009 8:31 PM
Posted by: mmmmm999999m34e56ee91099 | July 13, 2009 8:04 PM
Posted by: slim2 | July 13, 2009 7:44 PM
Posted by: joy2 | July 13, 2009 7:34 PM
Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | July 13, 2009 7:01 PM
Posted by: nodebris | July 13, 2009 6:30 PM
Posted by: mhr614 | July 13, 2009 6:21 PM
Posted by: expat2MEX | July 13, 2009 6:08 PM
Posted by: bpai_99 | July 13, 2009 6:05 PM
Posted by: LonewackoDotCom | July 13, 2009 5:56 PM
Posted by: FBGraham1 | July 13, 2009 5:55 PM
Posted by: Robe2 | July 13, 2009 5:09 PM
Posted by: dee5 | July 13, 2009 5:04 PM
Posted by: telesonic | July 13, 2009 5:03 PM
Posted by: MMSD | July 13, 2009 4:57 PM
Posted by: thrh | July 13, 2009 4:49 PM
Posted by: LonewackoDotCom | July 13, 2009 4:38 PM
Posted by: jeffreed | July 13, 2009 4:37 PM
Posted by: dnjake | July 13, 2009 4:30 PM
Posted by: lartfromabove | July 13, 2009 4:29 PM
Posted by: waterfrontproperty | July 13, 2009 4:20 PM
Posted by: thrh | July 13, 2009 4:14 PM
Posted by: thrh | July 13, 2009 4:10 PM
Posted by: thrh | July 13, 2009 4:08 PM
Posted by: drzimmern1 | July 13, 2009 3:56 PM
Posted by: drzimmern1 | July 13, 2009 3:56 PM
Posted by: analyst72 | July 13, 2009 3:55 PM
Posted by: kguy1 | July 13, 2009 3:40 PM
Posted by: SAINT---The | July 13, 2009 3:40 PM
Posted by: enaughton27 | July 13, 2009 3:33 PM
Posted by: Becks1 | July 13, 2009 3:33 PM
Posted by: StJohn1 | July 13, 2009 3:32 PM
Posted by: alance | July 13, 2009 3:28 PM
Posted by: pressF1 | July 13, 2009 3:28 PM
Posted by: DwightCollins | July 13, 2009 3:26 PM
Posted by: vipermd | July 13, 2009 3:25 PM
Posted by: John1263 | July 13, 2009 3:24 PM
Posted by: John1263 | July 13, 2009 3:20 PM
Posted by: Bob22003 | July 13, 2009 3:19 PM
Posted by: COLEBRACKETT | July 13, 2009 3:15 PM
Posted by: Deborgio | July 13, 2009 3:15 PM
Posted by: scrivener50 | July 13, 2009 3:13 PM
Posted by: antonio3 | July 13, 2009 3:04 PM
Posted by: Archarito | July 13, 2009 3:02 PM
Posted by: aepelbaum | July 13, 2009 2:53 PM
Posted by: Samson151 | July 13, 2009 2:53 PM
Posted by: chrojo01 | July 13, 2009 2:41 PM
Posted by: logcabin1836 | July 13, 2009 2:39 PM
Posted by: nodebris | July 13, 2009 2:30 PM
Posted by: leonardpa06 | July 13, 2009 2:26 PM
Posted by: Fei_Hu | July 13, 2009 2:16 PM
Posted by: numbersch13 | July 13, 2009 2:12 PM
Posted by: SAINT---The | July 13, 2009 1:53 PM
Posted by: browncow | July 13, 2009 1:49 PM
Posted by: parkerfl1 | July 13, 2009 1:44 PM
Posted by: gwailoh2007 | July 13, 2009 1:38 PM
Posted by: williamolson | July 13, 2009 1:37 PM
Posted by: williamolson | July 13, 2009 1:34 PM
Posted by: donaldtucker | July 13, 2009 1:30 PM
Posted by: Tupac_Goldstein | July 13, 2009 1:20 PM
Posted by: jckdoors | July 13, 2009 1:11 PM
Posted by: logcabin1836 | July 13, 2009 1:07 PM
Posted by: bgreston | July 13, 2009 12:39 PM
Posted by: anarcho-liberal-tarian | July 13, 2009 12:31 PM
Posted by: nodebris | July 13, 2009 12:11 PM
Posted by: nodebris | July 13, 2009 12:10 PM
The comments to this entry are closed.