The Sotomayor circus

Nearly everyone paying attention to the Sonia Sotomayor hearings this week expects the U.S. Court of Appeals judge from New York to be confirmed as the first Latina justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

As Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told Sotomayor Monday,

“Unless you have a complete meltdown, you’re are going to be confirmed.”

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be spirited debate about Sotomayor and her judicial philosophy. That’s because the hearing scheduled for at least four days this week serves purposes much broader than just confirming a Supreme Court justice.

Conservative Republicans, who have not fared well in recent elections, hope to re-energize their base by painting Sotomayor as an anti-gun, liberal activist who relies too much on race and her own ethnic background to formulate her opinions.

Democrats hope the GOP will go too far in attacking Sotomayor, thereby angering Hispanics and pushing even more to the Democratic fold. And they hope a strong vote in Sotomayor’s favor will encourage President Barack Obama to nominate someone even more liberal the next time there is a vacancy on the high court.

At the center of the critique against Sotomayor will be her decision — along with other Court of Appeals judges — in the reverse discrimination case brought by white firefighters who were denied promotions by the city of New Haven, Conn. That decision was recently overturned by the Supreme Court, and some Republicans are pointing to it as evidence that Sotomayor is unqualified to be a Supreme Court justice.

But the Supreme Court overturns appellate court rulings all the time. And, although we believe the Supreme Court ruling in that case was the correct one, it doesn’t mean
Sotomayor and her colleagues were out in left field. There is a significant legal debate about the requirements of the Voting Rights Act and court interpretations of it since it was enacted.

Republican leaders have vowed to be respectful but tough in their questioning of Sotomayor, and we hope they’re true to their word. We also hope Democratic leaders will not allow their colleagues to trash New Haven firefighter Frank Ricci, the lead plaintiff in the reverse discrimination lawsuit, as news reports suggest they planned to do this week. Those sorts of personal attacks, whether against Sotomayor or Ricci, reek of what Hillary Clinton famously called “the politics of personal destruction.” They should have no place in the Senate confirmation hearings.

Presidents have the right and responsibility to choose the people they believe are best suited to serve on the federal bench. And, unless those people are clearly unqualified or incompetent, the Senate should confirm them.

Sotomayor is unquestionably qualified. Like Sen. Graham, we believe she will be confirmed, once the circus has ended.


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