Sotomayor Faring Well on Maine Street
By Paul Kane
As Maine goes, so goes the Supreme Court?
While it's an overstatement at this point to say they control the fate of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, Maine Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe are key votes that could make the entire confirmation fight much less dramatic than some of the epic confirmation fights of the past 25 years.
Knowing the key role those senators could play, Sotomayor targeted Collins and Snowe for early visits this week as she winds her way through the Senate office buildings across the street from the Capitol, going from meeting to meeting talking about her judicial philosophy. Last night she finished her day with an hour-long visit with Snowe, and this afternoon -- after a lunch break -- she returned to the grip-and-grin circuit with a nearly 60-minute sit-down with Collins.
Most of the meetings, which began Tuesday morning, have focused on members of the Judiciary Committee, who will play key roles questioning her in public hearings likely to take place some time next month. Neither Collins nor Snowe is on that committee, but Sotomayor sat with the two moderate Republican senators for longer periods than many of her meetings with members of the Judiciary Committee.
President Obama expects to count on the support of all 59 members of the Senate Democratic caucus -- Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) today jokingly "dared" any Democrat to oppose Sotomayor -- so the administration enters the nomination battle with a decided advantage. (That estimate includes two elder statesmen, Sens. Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.) and Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), who are currently absent, fighting a staph infection and brain cancer respective.) Some outside conservative groups have pleaded with Republicans to try to mount a filibuster of her nomination, contending she's too liberal. Securing early support from the Maine senators would make such an effort futile, because it could assure that 61 senators were publicly supportive of confirmation.
Sotomayor did not win outright endorsements but garnered nods of approval from Collins and Snowe in critical areas of the law and personal background.
After their meeting Collins told reporters today that she spent "considerable time" talking with the nominee about her now infamous "wise Latina" remarks. Collins said she came away from the conversation "still uncomfortable that she made the statement, particularly as a judge, but I can understand her explanation."
"She intended it be an aspirational comment," Collins said, explaining that Sotomayor wanted to be a "role model" for other Latinas. "She enjoys setting an example."
Added Collins: "She told me that she would not be using it again, in the future."
Snowe was a bit more effusive than her home-state counterpart after last evening's session: "What I've heard here today certainly does impress me."
Snowe said she appreciated Sotomayor's support for stare decisis, the Latin term suggesting that precedents from prior court decisions can create "settled law."
Abortion rights supporters are strong advocates of stare decisis when it comes to that issue, noting that the Supreme Court has now upheld the right to an abortion twice, first in the "Roe v. Wade" decision in 1973 and again in the 1992 "Casey" ruling.
Snowe, who supports abortion rights, said she discussed with Sotomayor the issue of precedents in conjunction with the famous 1966 "Miranda" ruling, which required police making arrests to inform the suspects of their legal rights, including the right to an attorney. In the "Dickerson" case in 2000, the Supreme Court upheld the Miranda case even though some conservative justices suggested that it was an improperly decided case, saying that its ingrained status in the legal and political culture for several decades outweighed a decision they thought improper.
The nominee still faces hurdles in winning the public support of Maine's senators, who in all likelihood won't make public their position until after the hearings have concluded. Collins said she was disappointed that Sotomayor declined to discuss her most controversial ruling, joining with two other appellate court judges in upholding a lower-court ruling in a discrimination case involving the promotion test administered by the fire department in New Haven, Conn.
Sotomayor is declining to discuss the case because it is pending before the Supreme Court now. But the judge encouraged Collins to read a different decision of hers, a 2002 ruling involving similar issues with the New York City Police Department. Sotomayor told the senator it was the best case to explain how the judge thinks and acts in her philosophy.
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