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What to Watch for in Sotomayor's Confirmation Hearings

By Eva Rodriguez

Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearing could easily be billed as “The Wise Latina Woman" vs. “The White Firefighters."

The first phrase, of course, refers to comments made by the Supreme Court nominee that the life experiences of a "wise Latina woman" should and hopefully would lead her to make better decisions than a white male judge. This, not surprisingly, didn't go over well with some white men -- particularly conservative and Republican white men on the Senate Judiciary Committee now about to sit in judgment of the sitting judge. Also not particularly appealing to this group was Sotomayor's decision to back the city of New Haven in nullifying the results of a promotions test for firefighters when no black firefighters scored high enough to qualify for elevation. Sotomayor's would-be colleagues on the Supreme Court recently reversed her decision -- a fact I'd expect to be raised very early and possibly in the opening statements of some Republican senators on the Judiciary panel.

The real question at the heart of this controversy is whether Sotomayor sided with (or perhaps empathized with?) black firefighters because of political correctness and despite the dictates of the law (as her critics claim) or because existing federal civil rights law forced her to the conclusion (as supporters argue). Watch for this theme to be played out over the course of the hearings in a number of other cases.

Of note: There are no Hispanics or racial minorities on the Senate Judiciary Committee, a fact that could -- if questioning becomes hostile or aggressive -- recreate some of the tensions of the 1991 confirmation hearing of African American Justice Clarence Thomas, who faced an all-white panel. Of the 19 current members of the committee, all are white and only two are women -- Democrats Dianne Feinstein of California and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. There are 12 Democrats and seven Republicans on the committee, which is chaired by Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy. Newly minted Minnesota Sen. Al Franken has just become a member of the committee.

Questions about abortion have long been a centerpiece of confirmation hearings and were prominent as recently as 2005 and 2006, during the hearings of, respectively, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. (Who could forget then-Republican Sen. Arlen Spector grilling Roberts about whether Roe v. Wade and its progeny constituted “super" duper precedent? Don’t answer that!) While Feinstein, an abortion rights advocate, and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), an abortion foe, are almost certain to ask abortion-related questions, the topic doesn’t seem likely to dominate as it has in the past.

Instead, national security, terrorism, executive power and, of course, affirmative action and civil rights are likely to take a leading role. Expect Sotomayor to be pressed on the legalities of domestic spying and warrantless wiretapping by Democrat Russell Feingold of Wisconsin. Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina -- a former military lawyer -- is likely to pursue questions about military commissions and the powers of the president during wartime. It’s a good bet that Leahy will probe Sotomayor on waterboarding and the legal definition of torture.

Aside from national security matters, Democrats Herbert Kohl of Wisconsin (and of Kohl’s department store fame) and Charles Schumer of New York may engage Sotomayor on some business issues, including federal pre-emption. Expect Republicans, possibly John Kyl of Arizona or John Cornyn of Texas, to grill Sotomayor on property rights, especially her ruling allowing a local government entity to seize private property from two men in order to hand it over to a developer.

By Eva Rodriguez  | July 13, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Rodriguez  | Tags:  Eva Rodriguez  
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Presente Action -- with the support of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee -- is airing Spanish-language ads in key congressional districts in Florida, holding Republicans accountable for racist remarks toward Sotomayor. You can chip in to keep the ads on the air at: Every 100 people who give $25 will keep the ads on the air another day. Let's show Republicans that racism has consequences.

Posted by: ashleighcrocker | July 13, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

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