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Sotomayor To Answer Judiciary Panel's Questions

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

One big assignment for a Supreme Court nominee is to avoid making mistakes. And in that sense, Sonia Sotomayor had an easy first day of her confirmation hearing. For most of the day, she wasn't asked to say a thing.

INSKEEP: She sat like a prop at the witness table, while senators made opening statements. Some senators did lay out concerns about the nominee, and she got to answer in her prepared statement. Today, the real work begins.

MONTAGNE: Each senator on a key committee gets half an hour to ask her questions.

Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

Unidentified Man: Please swear the testimony you're about to give before the committee will be the truth, the whole truth...

NINA TOTENBERG: Just before 3:00 o'clock in the afternoon yesterday, with cameras clicking wildly, Sonia Sotomayor finally was sworn in and got a chance to speak. She spoke of her up-from-the-projects life story, how her father died when she was nine, leaving her mother to support the family. She spoke of her hard work in parochial school, her scholarships to Princeton and Yale Law School.

She spoke of her life as a big city prosecutor in New York, then as a corporate litigator and of her 17 years as a federal trial and appellate court judge. In the hours before, Republicans had taken their whacks at Sotomayor, focusing their attention mainly on speeches in which she said that a wise Latina judge might, in some cases, reach a better conclusion than a white male judge. Assistant Republican leader Jon Kyl of Arizona.

JON KYL: From what she has said, she appears to believe that her role is not constrained to objectively decide who wins based on the weight of the law, but rather who in her personal opinion should win.

TOTENBERG: The Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican, Jeff Sessions of Alabama.

JEFF SESSIONS: We reached a fork in the road, and there are stark differences. I will not vote for and no senator should vote for an individual nominated by any president who believes it is acceptable for a judge to allow their personal background, gender, prejudices or sympathies to sway their decision in favor of or against parties before the court.

TOTENBERG: Sotomayor's face remained impassive. Her own remarks, prepared in advance, anticipated the criticism.

SONIA SOTOMAYOR: In the past month, many senators have asked me about my judicial philosophy - simple: fidelity to the law. The task of a judge is not to make law. It is to apply the law.

TOTENBERG: While Republicans were on the attack, Democrats defended Sotomayor, noting that she has more experience as a federal judge than any other nominee in a hundred years. Her ideology, they said, is mainstream, her life the personification of the American dream. When the debate wasn't about her, it was about President Obama, mocked by Republicans for his stated desire to have a Supreme Court nominee with empathy.

Republicans repeatedly cited the testimony of Chief Justice John Roberts at his confirmation hearing, that a judge's job is to call balls and strikes. Democrats responded that if deciding difficult constitutional questions were that mechanical, there would be no need for a Supreme Court. A computer could do the job. Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse.

SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: The liberties in our Constitution have their boundaries defined in the gray and overlapping areas by informed judgment. None of this is balls and strikes.

TOTENBERG: The debate was almost entirely scripted yesterday, with Republican Lindsey Graham the only senator off message. Elections, he said, ought to matter, and Republicans lost the last one. Turning to Sotomayor, he added...

LINDSEY GRAHAM: This is mostly about liberal and conservative politics more than it is anything else. And having said that, there's some of my colleagues on the other side that voted for Judge Roberts and Alito knowing they would not have chosen either one of those. And I will remember that. Now, unless you have a complete meltdown, you're going to get confirmed.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TOTENBERG: Today, the scripts get put aside and Sotomayor has to answer questions. Some maybe insulting, but she will have to keep her game face on, not get irritated, and appear to cooperate without giving her critics anything to work with. If her opening statement is any guide, she plans to say as little as possible.

Nina Totenberg NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And you can track today's questions and answers by checking the latest news at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nina Totenberg
Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.