Senate Republicans have abandoned the courteous, meet-and-greet phase of the Sonia Sotomayor nomination. They’ve transitioned to full-blown attack mode, talking up “empathy,” gun rights and “judicial activism” three weeks before Sotomayor sits in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee for her confirmation to the Supreme Court.
In the most coordinated attack to date, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and the Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, took to the Senate floor Tuesday to start picking apart Sotomayor’s record and her past speeches.
Their effort is unlikely to change any minds on the Democratic side — and there’s no sign that Sotomayor has any serious obstacles in her nomination to the high court so far.
But Republicans are clearly changing their tactics. Senate GOP criticism of Sotomayor has been fairly mild in recent days, but aides said Tuesday that with senators set to head out of town for the weeklong July 4 recess, they wanted to make it clear that they had no intention of lying down in the face of what appears to be an increasingly inevitable confirmation.
“Democrats want to rubber stamp her, but that’s just not going to happen,” vowed a GOP leadership aide. “There’s going to be a constant drumbeat leading up to the confirmation hearings.”
“I think we recognize the importance of highlighting the areas of concern — because there are areas of concern — to put Judge Sotomayor, but also other senators, on notice that these are issues that they may want to look into as we consider her qualifications,” Cornyn told POLITICO on Tuesday.
In their remarks Tuesday, Republicans portrayed Sotomayor as an undisciplined judicial activist run amok.
Cornyn highlighted a speech Sotomayor delivered in 2002, noting that she directly referred to law professors Judith Resnik and Martha Minnow — both of whom, Cornyn said, proposed “theories about judging that are far different from the way that I think most Americans think about these issues.”
“The American people, I don’t think, want judges who believe that they have been endowed with some power to impose their views for what is otherwise the law,” Cornyn said. “Americans believe ... that judges should by definition show self-restraint and respect for the other branches of government.”
McConnell decided to harp on the empathy concept.
“The president has said repeatedly that his criterion for federal judges is their ability to empathize with specific groups,” said McConnell, pointing to Sotomayor’s ruling against a New Haven firefighter protesting that he had been passed over for a promotion in favor of minorities who had scored lower on a placement exam. “And based on a review of Judge Sotomayor’s record, it’s becoming clear to many that this is a trait that he’s found in this nominee.”
“It is an admirable quality to be a zealous advocate for your clients and the causes in which you believe. But judges are supposed to be passionate advocates for the evenhanded reading and fair application of the law, not their own policies and preferences,” said McConnell.
And Republicans promised Tuesday that they would challenge Sotomayor on gun rights.
“We’ll be talking about ... the question of this nominee’s commitment to the Second Amendment, the right to keep and bear arms,” Sessions said. “The Constitution said the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, and we’ll talk about that.”
None of these lines of attack are new, but the use of Senate floor time suggested that Republicans are trying to create some sense of unity within the party — and perhaps rally conservative activists — leading up to the July 13 confirmation hearings.
“It is apparent that some Republicans are responding to the demands of conservative pressure groups to oppose her confirmation by doing just that. The truth is that they were prepared to oppose any nomination that President Obama made,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.).
Democrats vowed to launch an aggressive defense for Sotomayor — especially before she’s uttered a single word at her confirmation hearings.
“It’s become clearer and clearer as we look hard at Judge Sotomayor’s record and vast experience, that attacking this nominee is like throwing rocks at a library — it’s uncalled for and it doesn’t accomplish anything,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). “Her opponents are grasping at straws, because it turns out we have before us one of the most qualified, exceptional nominees to come before this Senate in recent history.”