WASHINGTON (CN) – Democrats and Republicans made polite but pointed opening statements Monday during the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, underlying the tensions that could ignite later this week when Sotomayor fields questions, specifically about her “wise Latina” comment and the role empathy should play in a judge’s decisions.
Nonetheless, the atmosphere was welcoming as members from both sides of the aisle congratulated the judge and wished her luck. “Unless you have a complete meltdown, you are going to get confirmed,” South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said.
Republicans of the Senate Judiciary Committee were courteous, but all expressed concern over President Barack Obama’s statement that he was looking for a judge with empathy, and Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” remark, many saying it points to bias.
“I would hope that a wise Latina woman, with the richness of her experiences, would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life,” Sotomayor said during a speech.
Democrats expressed their immense approval of Sotomayor’s nomination and directed their comments to Republican charges of prejudice. They said the role of a judge involves a certain level of personal discretion and maintained that there is nothing wrong with empathy, adding that Sotomayor’s ethnicity and gender would be an asset to the bench.
In her short statement, Sotomayor described her judicial philosophy as simply “fidelity to the law.” Wearing a heavy, dark blue jacket, she addressed the role of her experiences in her decision making. “My personal and professional experiences help me listen and understand, with the law always commanding the result in every case.”
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said that if he had said something even remotely like Sotomayor’s “Latina woman” comment, his career would have ended.
“Call it empathy, call it prejudice, or call it sympathy, but whatever it is, it is not law,” Alabama Republican Ranking Member Jeff Sessions said. “Empathy for one party is always prejudice against another.”
But Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar saw Sotomayor’s empathy in a different light. “Your background and experiences, including your understanding of law enforcement, will help you to always remember that the cases you hear involve real people,” she said.
“If judges routinely started ruling on the basis of their feelings, however well-intentioned, the entire legitimacy of the judicial system would be jeopardized,” Arizona Republican Jon Kyl claimed. “Many of Judge Sotomayor’s public statements suggest that she may allow or even embrace decision making based on her biases.”
“She understands that there is not one law for one race or another,” Vermont Democrat Chairman Patrick Leahy said.
Senators consistently cited baseball in their opening statements, which may be appropriate because Sotomayor’s perhaps most famous ruling ended the 1995 baseball strike.
The comparison has a history in confirmation hearings. During his confirmation hearing, now Chief Justice John Roberts likened the role of a judge to that of an umpire who simply calls the balls and strikes, but who doesn’t make the rules. Republicans largely agreed with this description while Democrats fought it, and some Democrats charged that Roberts has since strayed from this idea, despite calls from Republicans for a judge to follow precedent.
“It is my belief that the Constitution and Bill of Rights were created to be living documents. When the Constitution was written, African Americans were considered property.” Maryland Democratic Sen. Benjamin Cardin said, in his belief that the description of a judge as an umpire is too narrow.
“If judging were that mechanical, we would not need 9 supreme court justices,” Sen. Whitehouse remarked, also rejecting the umpire comparison. He said all judges have a wide field of discretion, and that the question is whether she brings good judgment to that wide field.
California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein noted Sotomayor’s “brilliant legal and judicial career,” citing her 3,000 appeals decisions and more than 450 cases as a trial judge, and called her the most experienced Supreme Court nominee in a century.
Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter said it is time for the Supreme Court to have a Hispanic on the bench, but on a lighter note, expressed hope that Sotomayor would welcome television cameras to record court proceedings.
“I’d like to see the court televised,” he said, and noted that Justice David Souter, who Sotomayor would replace, has said TV cameras would have to roll over his dead body. “If you’re confirmed, they won’t have to roll over his dead body,” Spector said to laughter.
Abortion protestors chanted anti-Sotomayor slogans at the entrances to Senate buildings and four entered to interrupt the hearing with shouts of, “Abortion is murder! and “Defend life!” before they were removed by police.