Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor moved to blunt doubts about her fairness and impartiality on the bench on Monday even as the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking Republican set himself up to vote against her confirmation if he remains unconvinced.
Sotomayor used her seven-minute opening statement to insist to the Democratic-controlled committee that her decisions in 17 years on the federal bench “have been made not to serve the interests of any one litigant, but to serve the larger interest of justice.” She continued by saying that her judicial philosophy “is simple: fidelity to the law.”
“The task of a judge is not to make the law it is to apply the law,” Sotomayor said. “And it is clear, I believe, that my record in two courts reflects my rigorous commitment to interpreting the Constitution according to its terms; interpreting statutes according to their terms and congress’s intent; and hewing faithfully to precedents established by the Supreme Court and my Circuit Court.”
Sotomayor’s statement followed a full two-and-a-half hours of opening statements from the committee’s members, with praise for her record and life story from 12 Democrats and questions and concerns from the seven Republicans. In the most forceful of the GOP statements, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the panel, sharply criticized President Obama’s use of an “empathy” standard in nominating Sotomayor.
“I will not vote for and no senator should vote for an individual nominated by any president who is not fully committed to fairness and impartiality towards every person who appears before them,” Sessions said. “I will not for and no senator should vote for an individual who believes it is acceptable for a judge to allow their own personal background, gender, prejudices, or sympathies to sway their decision in favor of, or against, parties before the court.”
Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., had anticipated the line of attack from Republicans as he opened the hearing. “She’ll be a justice for all Americans,” Leahy said of Sotomayor after criticizing what he called “ideological pressure groups” for opposing her confirmation shortly after Obama announced his selection in late May.
The senators used their opening statements to frame the issues for the questioning of Sotomayor, which begins on Tuesday morning and is expected to span three days. They also sparred among themselves over judicial philosophies and Supreme Court decisions.
Sessions criticized empathy as “another step down the road to a liberal activist, results-oriented, and relativistic world.” Much later, Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island said there is “nothing wrong” with empathy, which he said has “a constitutionally proper place” in judicial decisionmaking.
Republican senators criticized Supreme Court decisions from earlier eras recognizing abortion rights, barring silent prayer in public schools and allowing local governments to seize private property for development by private interests. Democratic senators countered with criticism of decisions since Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. took office in 2005 that limited abortion rights, struck down the District of Columbia’s handgun ban and sided with business on antitrust and regulatory issues.
Sotomayor made no substantive comments on legal issues in her opening statement. Instead, she emphasized what she called her “uniquely American” life story life story from her childhood in a housing project in the Bronx to her education at Princeton and Yale Law School and then on to work as a prosecutor and corporate litigator before appointment to the bench in 1992.
Sotomayor appeared particularly emphatic in talking about her work as an assistant district attorney in New York. She said she had “felt” the suffering of crime victims’ families and “saw and learned the tough job law enforcement has protecting the public safety.” New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who hired Sotomayor and has served as the city’s chief prosecutor for nearly 35 years, will be one of the public witnesses picked by Democrats to testify in favor of Sotomayor at the end of the week.
Witnesses on the Republican side include academics and advocates who have opposed racial preferences along with current or past leaders of gun rights and anti-abortion organizations. GOP senators set the stage for questioning on all three issues by tying them to Sotomayor’s record as a judge or before taking the bench.
Sessions noted that Sotomayor had served on the board of an advocacy group referring to the former Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Educational Fund, now called LatinoJustice PRLDEF that favored taxpayer funding of abortions. He also pointed to Sotomayor’s joining a recent opinion that declined to apply the new Second Amendment right to private possession of handguns to state and local governments. And along with several other GOP senators Sessions dwelt on Sotomayor’s part in the New Haven, Conn., firefighters case, rejecting a reverse discrimination suit that the Supreme Court sustained by a 5-4 vote on June 29.
Afterward, Sessions told reporters that Sotomayor “did a very nice job” and called her statement “a good start” at assuaging his concerns. “If that had been the theme of her speeches over the last 15 years,” he said, “we would have less trouble” with the nomination.