Little Drama on Sotomayor's First Day


Sonia Sotomayor was a few sentences into her remarks when she turned from the witness table and faced the first row of guests behind her. There sat her mother and her family. "Thank you mom," the judge whispered. I was sitting a few rows away and can tell you not only that it was as genuine a private moment as you see on the Hill, but also one that encapsulates the difficulties the GOP will have in trying to derail the judge's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.

These nominations, and the hearings that accompany them, have long since ceased to be dry exercises in jurisprudential oversight. They are, and for decades have been, political theater. And that means they have become character dramas, in which the life narratives and the on-air personalities of the nominees mean as much as decisions rendered or speeches made.

All morning long, Republicans on the committee had portrayed Sotomayor as an out-of-the-mainstream judicial wild person, untethered to the Constitution, respect for precedent or a respect for the primacy of logic over emotion in the law. But unless they are able to prove their charges–and that will be very hard to do, based on her liberal but really rather cautious record as a judge—they will only make it easier for her to reassure the public by invoking personal symbols of her life.

It's clear what she and the White House are up to. They are selling Sotomayor with what can be called the mom-and-baseball defense: her love of family, her love of baseball, her love of her godchildren and solidarity with her ethnic community (who were represented here in Spanish-speaking force). All of that, she said, shows that "the progression of my life has been uniquely American." She spoke slowly, carefully, and ploddingly, schooled by White House prep sessions in how not to seem like a pushy New Yorker. Her supporters laid it on thick, with scripts that could have been written (or filmed) by Frank Capra or Jerry Seinfeld.

The Republicans know what is happening. They don't like it, but there is not much they can do about it. As Sen. Lindsay Graham said, "Unless you have a complete meltdown you're going to get confirmed"—and he added that he didn't think she would melt down. As things look right now, Sotomayor has a chance to get Graham's vote, and perhaps Sen. Orrin Hatch's as well. She won't get any another's. Beneath the surface of personal pageantry, the partisan bitterness and rancor on the committee was palpable. Democrats feel they were had by Judge John Roberts—now Chief Justice Roberts—who has turned out to be far less of a hale fellow well met and far more of a right-wing ideologue than they expected.

Part of the emerging Democratic strategy seemed to be to attack Roberts as much as to defend Sotomayor. Their argument seemed to be: don't accuse her of being an "activist." She's nothing compared with Roberts! No one out in the country will pay much attention to that line of argument in any case. The GOP will no doubt force Sotomayor to publicly recant—again—her "wise Latina" comment. I predict that she will do so with humility and grace, while at the same time defending the notion that diversity itself is a good thing.

It could be the only moment of real drama.