The historic confirmation hearings for Judge Sonia Sotomayor have begun. On Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee debated Sotomayor’s qualifications for a permanent seat on the nation’s highest court. Democrats praised her extensive judicial experience and the story of her personal progression. Republicans, however, continued to paint Sotomayor as biased because of her personal background and activism. [includes rush transcript]
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AMY GOODMAN: As Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s historic confirmation hearings continue into their second day, today we spend the hour discussing the history and record of the first Latina nominee to the Supreme Court.
On Monday, the nineteen members of the Senate Judiciary Committee debated Sotomayor’s qualifications for a permanent seat on the nation’s highest court. Democrats praised her extensive judicial experience and the story of her personal progression. They noted she is the most experienced nominee to the Supreme Court in a century, having served as both a federal trial and federal appellate judge, as well as both a prosecutor and a lawyer in private practice.
Republicans, however, continued to paint Sotomayor as biased because of her personal background and activism. Despite their long list of concerns, however, Senator Lindsey Graham acknowledged, quote, "Unless you have a complete meltdown, you’re going to get confirmed."
At the end of Monday’s hearing, Sotomayor told her life story and outlined her judicial philosophy in her opening statement.
JUDGE SONIA SOTOMAYOR: The progression of my life has been uniquely American. My parents left Puerto Rico during World War II. I grew up in modest circumstances in a Bronx housing project. My father, a factory worker with a third grade education, passed away when I was nine years old.
On her own, my mother raised my brother and me. She taught us that the key to success in America is a good education. And she set the example, studying alongside my brother and me at our kitchen table, so that she could become a registered nurse.
We worked hard. I poured myself into my studies at Cardinal Spellman High School, earning scholarships to Princeton University and then Yale Law School, while my brother went on to medical school. Our achievements are due to the values that we learned as children, and they have continued to guide my life’s endeavors. I try to pass on this legacy by serving as a mentor and friend to my many godchildren and to students of all backgrounds.
Over the past three decades, I have seen our judicial system from a number of different perspectives: as a big city prosecutor, as a corporate litigator, as a trial judge and as an appellate judge. [...]
Throughout my seventeen years on the bench, I have witnessed the human consequences of my decisions. Those decisions have not been made to serve the interest of any one litigant, but always to serve the larger interest of impartial justice.
In the past month, many senators have asked me about my judicial philosophy. Simple: fidelity to the law. The task of a judge is not to make law; it is to apply the law. 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 by my Circuit Court. In each case I have heard, I have applied the law to the facts at hand.
The process of judging is enhanced when the arguments and concerns of the parties to the litigation are understood and acknowledged. That is why I generally structure my opinions by setting out what the law requires and then explaining why a contrary position, sympathetic or not, is accepted or rejected. That is how I seek to strengthen both the rule of law and faith in the impartiality of our justice system. My personal and professional experiences help me to listen and understand, with the law always commanding the result in every case.
Since President Obama announced my nomination in May, I have received letters from people all over this country. Many tell a unique story of hope in spite of struggles. Each letter has deeply touched me. Each reflects a dream — a belief in the dream that led my parents to come to New York all those years ago. It is our Constitution that makes that dream possible, and I now seek the honor of upholding the Constitution as a justice on the Supreme Court.
AMY GOODMAN: Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor opening the case for her nomination to the Supreme Court.
Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy called Sotomayor a, quote, “careful and restrained judge" and described her story as one in which all Americans can take pride. He also warned against prejudice and urged committee members to not demean or belittle, quote, "this extraordinary woman" or engage in partisan political attacks.
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Those who break barriers often face the added burden of overcoming prejudice. And it’s been true in the Supreme Court. Thurgood Marshall graduated first in his law school class. He was the lead counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He sat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. He served as the nation’s top lawyer, the solicitor general of the United States. He won a remarkable twenty-nine out of thirty-two cases before the Supreme Court. But despite all of these qualifications and achievements, when he was before the Senate for his confirmation, he was asked questions designed to embarrass him, questions such as “Are you prejudiced against the white people of the South?” I hope that’s a time of our past.
The confirmation of Justice Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish American to be nominated to the High Court was a struggle rife with anti-Semitism and charges that he was a radical. The commentary at that time included questions about the Jewish mind and how its operations are complicated by altruism. Likewise, the first Catholic nominee had to overcome the argument, as a Catholic, he’d be dominated by the Pope.
We are in a different era, and I would trust that all members of this committee here today will reject the efforts of partisans and outside pressure groups that sought to create a caricature of Judge Sotomayor while belittling her record and her achievements, her intelligence. Let no one demean — let no one demean this extraordinary woman, her excess, her understanding of the constitutional duties she’s faithfully performed for the last seventeen years. [...]
Now, unfortunately, some have sought to twist her words and her record and to engage in partisan political attacks. Ideological pressure groups began attacking her even before the President made his selection. They then stepped up their attacks by threatening Republican senators who do not oppose her. That’s not the American way, and that should not be the Senate way.
AMY GOODMAN: In April, the Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions became the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, after Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter announced he would be leaving the Republican Party to caucus with the Democrats. Well, at Monday’s hearings, Sessions outlined his concerns over Sotomayor’s nomination and criticized President Obama’s call for empathy as a “critical ingredient” for a judge.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: I’m afraid our system will only be further corrupted, I have to say, as a result of President Obama’s views that in tough cases the critical ingredient for a judge is, quote, "the depth and breadth of one’s empathy," close-quote, as well as his words, quote, "their broader vision of what America should be."
Like the American people, I have watched this process for a number of years, and I fear that this empathy standard is another step down the road to a liberal, activist, results-oriented, relativistic world, where laws lose their fixed meaning, unelected judges set policy, Americans are seen as members of separate groups rather than as simply Americans, where the constitutional limits on government power are ignored when politicians want to buy out private companies.
So we’ve reached a fork in the road, I think, and there are stark differences.
I want to be clear. 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 toward every person who appears before them. I will not vote for, and no senator should vote for, an individual nominated by any president who believes it is acceptable for a judge to allow their personal background, gender, prejudices or sympathies to sway their decision in favor of or against parties before the court.
In my view, such a philosophy is disqualifying. Such an approach to judging means that the umpire calling the game is not neutral, but instead feels empowered to favor one team over another. Call it empathy, call it prejudice, or call it sympathy, but whatever it is, it’s not law. In truth, it’s more akin to politics, and politics has no place in the courtroom.
Some will respond Judge Sotomayor would never say it’s acceptable for a judge to display prejudice in a case, but I regret to say, Judge, that some of your statements that I’ll outline seem to say that clearly. [...]
During a speech fifteen years ago, Judge Sotomayor said, quote, "I willingly accept that we who judge must not deny the differences resulting from experience and heritage but attempt...continuously to judge when those opinions, sympathies and prejudices are appropriate," close-quote. And in that same speech, she said, quote, "My experiences will affect the facts I choose to see." Having tried a lot of cases, that particular phrase bothers me. I expect every judge to see all the facts.
So I think it’s noteworthy that when asked about Judge Sotomayor’s now-famous statement that a wise Latina would come to a better conclusion than others, President Obama, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg declined to defend the substance of those remarks. They each assume the nominee misspoke. But I don’t think it — but the nominee did not misspeak. She is on record as making this statement at least five times over the course of a decade.
AMY GOODMAN: Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions. We’ll talk more about his record over the years in just a moment. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. But first, we’ll be joined by the law clerk of Sonia Sotomayor when she was a Manhattan judge, and we’ll be joined by Democracy Now!’s Juan Gonzalez in the hearing room right now. Stay with us.