A dispatch from TIME’s Sophia Yan who sat in for us at today’s hearings:
Judge Sonia Sotomayor relaxed a bit in the hot seat in her third day of confirmation hearings to the Supreme Court.
Nearly every member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Republican and Democrat alike, today pressed her on abortion; predictably the appellate judge declined to offer her personal views. Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, persistently lobbed one hypothetical situation after another – “Let’s say I’m 38 weeks pregnant,” he said, which drew a couple guffaws from those in the room – but Sotomayor repeatedly offered the same response, “I can’t answer, because…[it’s] in the abstract.” Even when Senator Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, goaded her, almost coaching her to speak certain words, she was careful to pad her answers. Rather than stating an opinion, her fallback was often to cite what’s already been stated: “The court has said…repeatedly, that there is a right to privacy that women have with respect to the termination of their pregnancy in certain situations.” She refused to acknowledge exactly what situations those would be: she knows well that giving such bites will invite Republicans to trip her up later. The way facts are presented to a judge on a bench, she said, are very different than the way issues can be academically debated.
Sotomayor continued to hold steadfast when asked about her previously stated opinion that “the right to possess a gun is clearly not a fundamental right.” Coburn press hard in his questioning, asking her if there is a constitutional right to self-defense.
Senator Ted Kaufman, Biden’s replacement from Delaware, didn’t offer fireworks the way Franken would later, but Kaufman’s questions gave Sotomayor an excellent opportunity to discuss the advantages she’ll bring to the bench given her previous experience. Franken, as the last senator to close out the first round, lightened the mood with a more jovial tone. “You have been nominated to be justice of the Supreme Court. I think that’s pretty cool,” said the former late night comedian, stating the obvious.
Franken also brought a new fish to play with in the bowl (we’re all starting to envy that fact that some fishes have five second memories). According to Franken, the Internet plays “a central role in our democracy by allowing anyone with a computer to publish their ideas, their thoughts, their opinions, and reach an audience of millions.” And he’s right – cyberspace offers up a soapbox to anyone with a keyboard and an opinion. So with such wide reaching influence, Franken pushed Sotomayor for her thoughts on Internet regulation.
The second round of query opened with Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, the panel’s top Republican, echoing his G.O.P. colleague Texas Senator John Cornyn’s remarks from the morning (again, fish: bowl). Circling back to empathy and Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” comment – which she has made quite clear has been taken out of context – Sessions added another coat of green algae on the glass that is starting to obscure our view of the outside in a way that worries us. Once and future Democrat Arlen Specter called out his former Republican colleagues for making “a mountain out of a molehill.”
Utah’s Orrin Hatch highlighted specific quotes from Sotomayor’s past speeches, trying yet again to parse out if personal bias factors in to her decisions. The day rounded out with Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, proudly heralding a new topic that “no one, not one Senator on this panel has yet asked about”: marriage laws. He asked Sotomayor for her thoughts on the Defense of Marriage Act, to which the judge respectfully declined to answer, saying she would not comment on pending or impending cases.
Tomorrow morning, the second round of questioning will resume, and in the afternoon, we’ll hear from witnesses from Sotomayor’s past cases. Please, Senate staff, come and change the water overnight.