Well, they're finally underway after months of preparation, discussions, arguments and polemical pontifications: the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor have begun.
And so far, they've been fairly dull. The most interesting things to happen have been the ejection of an anti-abortion protester and a tiff between the Republican and Democratic sides of the Senate Judiciary Committee over the events surrounding Miguel Estrada's withdrawn nomination to the DC Circuit.
Also notable, if only for its unusual honesty, was Senator Lindsey Graham's (R - SC) statement to Sotomayor that "[u]nless you have a complete meltdown, you're going to get confirmed." It's rare to witness that kind of candor emanate from beneath the
penumbral shroud of rhetoric that usually characterizes Senate
committee hearings, but it highlighted a fact that seems to be clear to
just about everyone: The Committee will almost certainly vote in favor
of confirmation, and the Republicans have so far been unable to muster
the 40 votes needed for a filibuster to block the confirmation before
the entire Senate, which almost guarantees Sotomayor's accession to the Supreme Court.
Which turns the entire process into an exercise in political
grandstanding rather than a judicial confirmation, really. Republicans
and Democrats alike have their eyes on the midterm elections in 2010,
and their opening statements have been designed to make their positions
known on the issues that most concern their bases.
For Republicans, the primary talking point has been the so-called
"empathy" controversy. Members on the Republican side of the aisle
have been hammering home the point that they do not want a judicial
activist on the bench (unless they are right-wing conservatives who
actively try to move Supreme Court jurisprudence to an originalist
interpretation of the Constitution, of course.)
Republicans pointed to Sonia Sotomayor's speeches and extra-judicial
writings as demonstrating some kind of preference for minorities and
underdogs, with which each Republican member expressed concern. Over
and over again, the Republican senators attacked Sotomayor's
impartiality and all but accused her of bias.
The Republicans also repeatedly, nakedly and blandly expressed their
desire for a return to a "written Constitution," which was an explicit
nod to the members of the conservative base who favor an originalist
interpretation of the Constitution that would deny most of the
substantive rights that the Supreme Court has upheld over the last
century. In other words, an interpretation in which there is
absolutely no room for Roe v. Wade.
Dull repetition wasn't solely a Republican trick, though. The
Democrats repeatedly rained down abuse on Chief Justice John Roberts
and Justice Samuel Alito as examples of right-wing judicial activism,
mocking Roberts' statement that judges are umpires, not making the
rules, but only calling balls and strikes.
(A statement that, although pithy, doesn't make much sense. Any fan of
baseball knows that umpires have significant room for interpretation of
the rules of baseball, just like a judge. Umpires might call balls and
strikes, but every umpire has his own idea of what the strike zone
Democrats also repeatedly made note of the importance of the personal
rights guaranteed under past Supreme Court precedent, and highlighted
opinions from the Roberts Court that have limited those rights despite
principles of stare decisis.
Few Democrats mentioned the word "empathy," but all stressed the need
for Supreme Court justices to have some understanding of the effects of
their decisions. Democrats want a justice who will realize the impact
of Court decisions on the common man, and pointed to Justice Clarence
Thomas' statement to that effect during his confirmation hearing.
The members of the majority party in the committee also emphasized
Sotomayor's judicial modesty, noting during multiple statements that
she voted with her Republican-appointed colleagues 95% of the time.
So far, the whole proceeding has been a typical demonstration of the
usual political and ideological split between the parties, during which
time Sotomayor has had to sit in silence (looking somewhat
uncomfortable with the process, but that might just be because of her
broken ankle), a superfluous addition to her own confirmation hearings.
Anything could still happen, though - after all, it's only the first day and we're only up to the lunch break.
See Also: Cast of characters on committee quizzing Sotomayor (AP) Senate Sermons: The Philosophy of Judging (WSJ Law Blog)