Spotlight on Senate Judiciary Committee As Sotomayor’s Confirmation Hearing Begins on Monday

July 13, 2009 - 4:21 AM
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Washington (AP) - Live from the Capitol, Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings promise high political theater this week, beamed to the world in dramatic, historic, perhaps comedic glory.
 
When the curtain rises Monday on Sotomayor's nomination to become the Supreme Court's first Hispanic justice, a large cast of ambitious players will be ready to explore themes from racial conflict to legal controversy, as well as personal facts and views.
 
If this is a show, top billing must go to Sotomayor herself, the federal appeals court judge who grew up in a New York housing project where her parents had moved from Puerto Rico. But with camera-loving politicians in charge, the Senate Judiciary Committee drama won't be just about her.
 
This is about them, too.
 
Two lawmakers, a Vermont liberal and an Alabama conservative, will have leading roles. Backing them is a supporting cast that will include the Defenders, the Skeptic, the Patriarch, the Doyenne, the Wild Card and the Novice.
 
Visually, they'll be grouped like this: Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy and Sotomayor at center stage facing each other. Eleven other Senate Democrats -- nine white men, two white women -- will sit to the audience's right, eager to help Sotomayor defend herself against any conservative charges. Their mandate: do no harm to her overwhelming prospects for taking over retired Justice David Souter's seat on the nine-member court.
 
On the audience's left -- but to the right on your scorecard -- will be seven white male Republican senators with a delicate task: respectfully challenging the Latina nominee -- on crutches, recovering from a broken ankle -- without alienating women or Hispanics.
 
And try to do it while facing two visible reminders of the GOP's rout in the 2008 elections.
 
Seated at the end of the Democratic side will be Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, until this year a Republican, and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., the former TV comedian making his Senate debut. He just emerged as the victor in an eight-month recount battle against Republican incumbent Norm Coleman.
 
A viewer's guide to the faces certain to nab key screen time during the Sotomayor's made-for-TV hearings.
 
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THE LEAD PLAYERS
 
Chairman Leahy, D-Vt.
 
If he looks familiar, it could be because he's been in the Senate for more than three decades and participated in hearings of every Supreme Court nominee since now-retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Or it could be the Batman movies. With white hair and bifocals, the man with the gavel has had cameos in all of them, and a speaking part in "The Dark Knight."
 
Leahy, 69, will be in charge of keeping senators to their allotted 30 minutes for questions, tamping down the inevitable showboating and issuing stern warnings to any protesters who get out of hand.
 
It's good to be chairman, by the way: He can allot himself all the time he wants to rebut points Republicans try to make or to ask clarifying questions of the nominee. Leahy was a state prosecutor for eight years before coming to the Senate. The grandfather of five is an avid photographer seen at previous hearings snapping pictures of news photographers as they snap photos of him.
 
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Ranking Republican Jeff Sessions of Alabama.
 
Taking his first turn as the lead Republican at a Supreme Court hearing, the 62-year-old Sessions will sit next to Leahy and, in broad terms, try to reassure the vanquished GOP base that their interests are being represented in this most visible forum.
 
Sessions wants to know whether Sotomayor allows personal views, not just the law, to influence her rulings. He has raised doubts about her support for the constitutional right to keep and bear arms and her association with a Puerto Rican civil rights group before she became a federal judge 17 years ago.
 
But conservative critics of Sotomayor have been unable to get the Senate's 40 Republicans to stand together against her, and Sessions has said he doesn't "sense a filibuster in the works" to block her confirmation.
 
Personally and politically, he's got big shoes to fill and a delicate line to walk in this role. Sessions is succeeding the sharp-tongued Specter, chairman at the previous two Supreme Court hearings.
 
Sessions, in his third term, has plenty of experience grilling witnesses; he's a former federal prosecutor. But he has stumbled over issues of race. Comments he allegedly made sank his own nomination by President Ronald Reagan to be a federal judge.
 
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THE DEFENDERS
 
Senate Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois and Charles Schumer of New York.
 
They're Obama's guys, for different reasons.
 
Durbin, in his third term at 64, is the president's chief ally in the Senate and served with him during Obama's meteoric rise. Schumer, 58, and in his second term, represents Sotomayor's home state, is thus her sponsor. By tradition, he will introduce her to the committee when the hearings open.
 
Durbin and Schumer have leadership positions in their party, are regarded by Republicans as fierce partisans and are fond recipients of news coverage. They share a house with other members of Congress in Washington while away from their families.
 
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THE PATRIARCH
 
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
 
Hatch, 75, has been the committee chairman twice and participated in hearings for eight Supreme Court justices. A musician and great-grandfather, Hatch is known for a generally cool demeanor that sometimes gives way to frank rejoinders.
 
He has a strong conservative philosophy, and in past hearings he staunchly defended the troubled nominations of Robert Bork (who wasn't confirmed) and Clarence Thomas (who was). But Hatch has departed from party dogma, too, on stem cell research and other issues.
 
He has said he's concerned that Sotomayor takes a "somewhat dim view of the Second Amendment" to the Constitution to keep and bear arms. But he also has said he's keeping an open mind and generally believes presidents should be given leeway on the people they nominate.
 
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THE WILD CARD
 
Specter, D-Pa.
 
"Snarlin' Arlen," 79, enters these hearings more experienced at running them than Leahy, yet without the privileges of the seniority that ordinarily comes with five Senate terms.
 
Democrats stripped him of that when he joined their party this year. He switched, he said, because he could not have won a GOP primary in Pennsylvania as a Republican.
 
Specter is not expected to behave in the traditionally deferential manner of a junior senator. He was chairman at the hearings of now-Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. And he knows Senate tradition, the law and the Constitution as well as any expert in the room. He's famous for bucking the leadership of his party, a trait that vexed the Bush White House.
 
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THE DOYENNE
 
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
 
In her fourth term, Feinstein, 76, is the most senior woman on the committee and represents a statewide constituency that is 36 percent Hispanic and half women, according to the Census Bureau.
 
Feinstein told reporters last week she plans pushing back hard against any Republican implication that Sotomayor might be an "activist judge" who tries to make laws from the bench. Roberts and Alito, Feinstein said, have participated in high court reversals of precedent plenty of times since their confirmations, though they pledged to not be activists.
 
Now head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Feinstein has considerable clout in the Senate and with Obama's White House. Viewers might recall her presiding over Obama's inauguration in January.
 
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THE SKEPTIC
 
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
 
The second-term senator, 57, has perhaps the best picture of this particular nomination and its political implications of anyone on the panel. Like Feinstein, he represents a large state and a constituency that's about one-third Hispanic.
 
Cornyn also is the Republican point man for the 2010 Senate elections, charged with raising money and helping the GOP rebound from a defeat that handed Democrats a 60-seat, filibuster-resistant majority.
 
In Texas, he served on the state Supreme Court and as attorney general.
 
Cornyn has said he has questions about whether Sotomayor will uphold the Constitution's guarantees of equal protection and the right to keep and bear arms.
 
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THE NOVICE
 
Franken, D-Minn.
 
The former "Saturday Night Live" performer is now 100th out of 100 senators in seniority. Not a lawyer, he was awarded a committee seat almost as soon as he was sworn into office this past week.
 
His victory over Coleman after their eight-month recount battle is a trophy Democrats are eager to display. Franken had less than two weeks to prepare for these hearings. But as a veteran of the big stage, he just might fit right in.