Saturday, May 30, 2009

Search for clarity will make Sotomayor's hearings must-see TV

(Originally published 5/30/09)

America, meet Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

In nominating her to the Supreme Court Tuesday, President Obama emphasized her personal story, her vast experience and past bipartisan support. He didn't say it, but it's just as important: She would bring badly needed gender and ethnic diversity to the Court.

For these reasons, Sotomayor was on the short list of potential nominees from the start. So once her nomination was official, journalists and legal observers needed only to grab their nearby notes.

Interest groups reacted similarly. Within an hour of her nomination, power players across the spectrum were reaching out to their supporters for money -– never mind that those supporters were just learning Sotomayor's name.

But as these few days have unfolded, the one thing that's become clear about Sotomayor is that there are a lot of things that aren't clear.

For example, pro-life advocates reacted negatively to Sotomayor's nomination because they assume that as a justice on the high court, she will reflect President Obama's views on abortion. One group put it (in bold font) to its members this way:

"Based on her judicial philosophy, we expect her to elevate unrestricted, unregulated, and taxpayer-funded abortion-on-demand to a fundamental constitutional right by reading the sweeping Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) into the Constitution."


But then there's this, from Wednesday's New York Times:

"When (Sotomayor) has written opinions that touched tangentially on abortion disputes, she has reached outcomes in some cases that were favorable to abortion opponents. Now, some abortion rights advocates are quietly expressing unease that Judge Sotomayor may not be a reliable vote to uphold Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 abortion rights decision."

The Times reports that officials with NARAL Pro-Choice America, this country's largest abortion-rights organization, don't fully support Sotomayor just yet. They are demanding that senators extract her views on privacy rights before getting behind her.

Sotomayor will be enlightening senators about her beliefs in other areas, too.

One is the now-famous "Latina woman" remark she made during a speech seven years ago. I found myself engaged with a friend in a debate about what Sotomayor must have meant by that statement. He gives her the benefit of the doubt that she was making a broader point about the need for diversity on the bench; I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, but I'd sure like to hear her clarify it.

And then there's the affirmative action case involving firefighters in New Haven, Conn. You may remember a column I wrote last month on that case. As it turns out, Sotomayor was one of the judges to affirm the lower court's decision in favor of the city on appeal; however, her panel did so without substantive comment on the merits. One observer wondered online this week why Sotomayor, who doesn't exactly have a record of shying away from the controversial, would "punt" on such an important case. Interestingly, since the Supreme Court heard arguments in that case last month, there is an outside chance that justices could hand down their decision on it while Sotomayor is before the Judiciary Committee.

And there's more. Thanks to Arlen Specter's recent defection from the GOP, Alabama's own Jeff Sessions is now the committee's ranking member; as such, he'll play a key role in the hearings.

Sotomayor's confirmation hearings are going to be fascinating viewing, especially for political junkies like me.

I can’t wait.

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