Pride and Prejudice

Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearing gets off to a condescending start.

| Mon Jul. 13, 2009 7:17 PM EDT

MoJo D.C. bureau Legal Affairs reporter Stephanie Mencimer is reporting live from inside the Sotomayor confirmation hearings this week. This is the wrap-up of Monday's action. For the latest analysis, watch our video and live blog here, or follow Stephanie's and David Corn's coverage on Twitter.

There’s been a lot of chest-thumping going on in Washington since President Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court. Republicans have tried to seize on her nomination to lift the fortunes of their ailing minority party. Their leading men have taken to the Senate floor to declare war on the president’s nominee. Newspaper headlines have chronicled their battle strategy and how they intend to bring her down. They have huffed and puffed about Sotomayor’s alleged failings: She has too much empathy. She has too little empathy—for white guys, that is. She’s such a Puerto Rican radical she’s practically a separatist.

But when all those warriors finally amassed on the battlefield of the Hart Senate Office Building Monday, their rhetoric wilted considerably. With Sotomayor sitting before them, resplendent in her electric-blue jacket and $15,000-dentist-bill smile, it seems to have occurred to many of them, perhaps for the first time, that Sotomayor is not like their usual political adversaries. She’s not just a Democratic nominee or a surrogate for the president. She’s also a girl.

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Sotomayor is the first woman to sit in this particular hot seat in 16 years. And both Republican and Democratic senators—all but two of whom are men—seemed a bit befuddled on how to handle her. The Republicans had evidently decided that going for the jugular was too risky. They may have also reasoned that it would look bad to Hispanic voters back home to beat up on a Latina diabetic with a bum ankle on national television. So most adopted the tried and true approach to dealing with accomplished women ascending to positions of power: condescension.

Ranking minority member Jeff Sessions gave what sounded like a stern school principal’s lecture about his concerns with Sotomayor’s record, largely referring to her in the third person. At the end of his lecture, he finally addressed her directly: "Judge Sotomayor, we will inquire into how your philosophy, which allows subjectivity into the courtroom, affects your ruling on issues like abortion…" He sounded ready to call her parents to demand a curfew.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) added some levity to the otherwise dour proceeding by stating the obvious—that the Senate will approve Sotomayor’s nomination. But he also suggested that her only real risk of losing the job was that quintessential female weakness: hysteria. "Unless you have a complete meltdown, you’re going to be confirmed," he told her. Funny, yes, but no one would have dreamed of implying that John Roberts might have a nervous breakdown during his confirmation hearing.  

Strangely, in trying to defend the nominee, the Democrats weren’t all that much better than their Republican colleagues. To a senator, they proclaimed how “proud” they were to see her sitting before them, as if it were astonishing that she hadn’t become a cleaning lady like the other Latinas they know. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, one of the non-lawyers on the committee, gushed about Sotomayor like a high school teacher addressing her graduating students. "Your nomination I view with a great sense of personal pride. You are a very special woman. You have overcome adversity and disadvantages. You have grown in strength and determination..." Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) babbled, "Your nomination caps what has already been a remarkable legal career and I join many, many Americans who are so proud to see you here today." Everyone was just so damn proud. (The Republicans wouldn’t admit to being personally proud of Sotomayor, but instead acknowledged how proud her family must be.)

Given this awkward beginning to the proceedings, what will happen when the senators are forced to interact directly with Sotomayor in the Q&A sessions? The GOP’s committee leadership is heavily Southern, with Sessions hailing from Alabama, Graham from South Carolina, and John Cornyn from Texas. As much as they may want to land some body blows, the southerners seem temperamentally incapable of making such a direct assault on a woman. Instead, they’re likely to continue with the politely demeaning approach, even though Sotomayor can clearly handle direct fire. (She is from the Bronx, after all.)

In her brief statement today, Sotomayor’s public delivery suggests she has a prosecutor’s mettle and a judge’s bullshit detector. Reports from her courtroom indicate that she can leave even seasoned litigators a little weak in the knees with her questioning. This is a woman who is not only making her third trip through a confirmation hearing, but one who once donned a bulletproof vest to accompany law-enforcement on a raid of a gang warehouse—and that was when she was in private practice. She doesn't need the Democrats' patronizing defense. And if Sessions and company decided to treat her like a man, she’d probably kick their asses.

A few parting thoughts on day one:

A pox on Chief Justice John Roberts for famously telling the committee that "Judges are like umpires. Umpires don’t make the rules, they apply them."

Because Roberts has borne little resemblance to an umpire on the bench—witness his opinion in the Ricci case—virtually every Democratic senator who spoke today invoked his baseball metaphor. Even the unknown Sen. Edward Kaufman (D-Del.) said, "Fundamental fairness requires that in the courtroom, everyone comes to the plate with the same count of no balls and no strikes." Dianne Feinstein said, "I do not believe that Supreme Court justices are merely umpires calling balls and strikes." Whitehouse wrapped up several criticisms of the current court by saying "Some umpire" and "some balls and strikes."  

We’re going to suffer through a lot more of these bromides as the senators are bound to ask Sotomayor a few questions about her 1995 decision ending the baseball players’ strike. Later in the week, the committee will even hear testimony from MLB player David Cone, who was one of the union negotiators for the players union in the dispute, providing even more opportunities for sports metaphors.  Chairman Patrick Leahy needs to call foul.

Stephanie Mencimer is live blogging the hearings this week. Follow along here.

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