The judiciary committee’s vote to endorse Sonia Sotomayor is not surprising. None of the Democrats are from red states and so have little to fear from voters, while the quixotic Lindsey Graham—in what can only be described as a triumph of hope over experience—was the only Republican to have set aside legitimate qualms and voted for the “wise Latina.” But voting on a Supreme Court nomination is more than a matter of deciding whether a nominee is “qualified”—even if Sonia Sotomayor had been a leading light of the judiciary rather than just the best available Hispanic woman—or deferring to the president. Instead, Senator Dick Durbin had it right when he said during John Roberts’s confirmation hearings that “no one has a right to sit on the Supreme Court” and that the “burden of proof for a Supreme Court justice is on the nominee.”
Given Sotomayor’s repeated rejection of the idea that law is or should be objective or discernible from written text, her inability in oral and written testimony to even state a position on important cases and legal doctrine beyond an acceptance of precedent—by which she would no longer be bound in her new role—leaves me with an abiding concern about the damage she could do to the rule of law in this country. I am similarly hard-pressed to accept hearing-seat conversions that contradict over 15 years of speeches and articles: most notably on the idea that judges’ ethnic backgrounds—and even “physiological differences”—should affect their rulings and on using foreign law to inform constitutional interpretation. Because of her evasion, obfuscation, and doubletalk, I like Sotomayor less now than when she was first nominated.
And so, in following the “burden of proof” paradigm and also respecting the logic of Senator Arlen Specter, who curiously evoked Scottish law at President Clinton’s impeachment trial to vote “not proven,” I would vote that the case for confirming Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court is “not proven”—under American law.
Having sat through the entire gavel-to-gavel coverage of last week's confirmation hearings, I still don’t know if I would vote to confirm Sonia Sotomayor if I were a senator, I really don’t. Deciding how to vote on this is more than a simple matter of deciding whether she is “qualified” to sit on the Supreme Court—which is hard enough given there is no fixed qualification standard.
It also has to include how much deference you want to give the president, in general terms but also taking into account that Sotomayor will likely be confirmed and you want to position yourself politically for the next nominee. And it has to include, of course, how your constituents feel; while it’s cowardly to follow opinion polls blindly, you are accountable to those who sent you to Washington. There are many other considerations, both political and legal.
But I’m not a senator—or even a senator’s aide—so I don’t have to make that decision. As a constitutional lawyer, however, I can say that—even as most of Sotomayor’s opinions are uncontroversial—it is impossible to overlook the short thrift the judge gave to the judicial process in Ricci v. DeStefano and Didden v. Port Chester. I am similarly hard-pressed to accept hearing-seat conversions that contradict over 15 years of speeches and articles: most notably against the idea that judges’ ethnic backgrounds—and even “physiological differences”—should affect their rulings.
Given Sotomayor’s repeated past rejection of the idea that law is or should be objective, stable, or discernible from written text, her inability during her testimony to explain her judicial philosophy—or even state her position on important cases and issues beyond an acceptance of precedent (by which she would no longer be bound in her new role)—leaves me with an abiding concern about the damage she could do to the rule of law in this country. Because of the nominee's evasion, obfuscation, and doubletalk, I like her less now than I did before the hearings.
And so, on second thought, I do know how I would vote. During John Roberts's confirmation hearings, Sen. Dick Durbin said that “no one has a right to sit on the Supreme Court” and that the “burden of proof for a Supreme Court justice is on the nominee.” I will follow this very apt "burden of proof" paradigm and respect the logic of Sen. Arlen Specter, the Republican-turned-Democrat former judiciary committee chairman who at President Clinton’s impeachment trial curiously evoked Scottish law to vote “not proven.” Given the impropriety of citing foreign law (another issue on which the nominee failed to explain her “conversion” in hearing testimony), I would vote that the case for confirming Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court is “not proven”—under American law.
The first day of the Sotomayor hearings yielded many baseball references but little in the way of home runs and strikeouts—or surprises. Democrats lauded Sotomayor’s rags-to-riches story and career achievements. Republicans questioned the “wise Latina’s” commitment to objectivity, whether she would be a “judicial activist” and—most interesting to me—whether she planned to use foreign law in helping her to interpret the Constitution. These would clearly be the lines of attack and counterattack.
It was all “set pieces”—prepared statements that often said more about the senators themselves than about the nominee. The stars of the show were unquestionably Senators Sessions (R-AL), Graham (R-SC), and Franken (D-SNLMN). Sessions, the ranking member, is armed for bear and has clearly been reading the memos my colleagues around town have been writing. Graham marches to his own (very candid) drummer, pronouncing that Sotomayor would be confirmed unless she had a “complete meltdown.” Franken… well he’s just happy to be on the big stage on his sixth day in office.
Assuming Sotomayor is confirmed, however, this will not be that big a political victory for President Obama. With Democrats holding a 60-40 margin in the Senate, confirmation has long been expected, and the political markets have already discounted for it. The president will likely see a temporary blip of support, particularly among Hispanics, but not as much as one might think—because those who are high on Sotomayor already support Obama. Moreover, most people will soon forget the Supreme Court and go back to worrying about their personal economic situation—which the president’s policies are certainly not helping.
In a way, this week’s hearings and the confirmation process generally have more downside potential for the administration than upside. Not because of the small chance Sotomayor won’t get confirmed—which would be a real blow—but because issues such as affirmative action, property rights, gun rights, and the use of foreign law are all being thrust to the forefront of the news cycle. These issues, and the debate over judicial philosophy generally, are all winners for the Republicans—if they play their cards right.
In any event, tomorrow the real fun begins—with the blue team tossing softballs at the nominee and the red team sending the high heat.
Cato senior fellow Randy Barnett has a piece in the Wall Street Journal on the Senate's confirmation hearing for Obama's nominee to the Supreme Court. Excerpt:
Supreme Court confirmation hearings do not have to be about either results or nothing. They could be about clauses, not cases. Instead of asking nominees how they would decide particular cases, ask them to explain what they think the various clauses of the Constitution mean. Does the Second Amendment protect an individual right to arms? What was the original meaning of the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the 14th Amendment? (Hint: It included an individual right to arms.) Does the 14th Amendment "incorporate" the Bill of Rights and, if so, how and why? Does the Ninth Amendment protect judicially enforceable unenumerated rights? Does the Necessary and Proper Clause delegate unlimited discretion to Congress? Where in the text of the Constitution is the so-called Spending Power (by which Congress claims the power to spend tax revenue on anything it wants) and does it have any enforceable limits?
Read the whole thing.