Thursday, July 16, 2009

Sotomayor Confirmation Hearings

There are two themes that I find interesting in the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearings on the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court:

  1. Republicans are attacking Sotomayor quite strongly, even though they admit they can't derail her nomination.

  2. Sotomayor is being very cautious in what she communicates, verbally and otherwise, to the committee and, by extension, to the country.

This New York Times article speculates on Republicans' strategy. Peter Baker and Charlie Savage write that the opposition is sending a message that President Obama will get into trouble if he submits nominees who are too far to the left, for any future Court vacancies that might arise during his presidency.

Republican senators are signaling that they won't roll over and play dead in response to a nomination by Obama. Also, they are establishing a hearing record in which Sotomayor has committed to traditional concepts of how judges apply the law, and whether the Constitution can change by judicial interpretation, as well as by amendment. They can throw that record in the face of any future nominee who varies from it.

But I think there's something more basic going on: Republican senators are keeping faith with their right-wing base. Opposition to liberal activist judges has been a battle cry among that base, since Earl Warren's tenure as chief justice during the 1950s and '60s.

More specifically, looking toward Senate elections in 2010 and 2012, as well as the 2012 presidential election, Republicans seem to be preparing to make the case that the electorate needs to send more Republicans to Washington, in order to guard against a leftward shift of the Judicial Branch.

If Sotomayor is confirmed, and she then joins in any Supreme Court opinions that are perceived as being to the left of the mainstream, Republican senatorial candidates can point to those as a danger against which the election of more of their party is a safeguard.

But they'll need to be careful in executing that strategy, so as not to alienate centrist Latino and female voters.

I doubt whether any of the 60 Democrats-and-Independents in the Senate will vote against Sotomayor. I'm guessing she'll win a few Republican votes, although perhaps a minority among the 40 members of that caucus. So, this one is a foregone conclusion but, like chess players, the politicians are planning a few moves ahead.

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