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Hearings To Begin On Sotomayor Nomination

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Senators who open hearings on a Supreme Court nominee today could be forgiven if they seem to be shifting their gaze. They will keep one eye on Judge Sonia Sotomayor and another eye on history. This would be a lifetime appointment.

MONTAGNE: Lawmakers will also have to keep an eye on their core political supporters. Ideological fighters in both parties tend to be the ones who care most passionately about Supreme Court choices.

INSKEEP: And maybe some lawmakers will also glance at a CNN survey of the broader public. It finds that Sotomayor's support has now fallen below 50 percent.

Here is NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG: Call it a classic Washington drama, call it a Kabuki dance, the star is still Sonia Sotomayor and the costars - the senators - many of them longtime antagonists who've now switched sides in every sense of the word. Just a few years ago when Republicans controlled the Senate and the White House, it was the Democrats playing offense and the Republicans playing defense for their nominee. Now, the roles are reversed.

Back then the committee chairman was Republican Arlen Specter who this year defected to the Democratic Party. So now the ranking Republican is Alabama's Jeff Sessions, a rock-ribbed conservative, who two decades ago came before this very committee as a nominee for a federal district court judgeship.

Although the committee was controlled by Republicans, Session's nomination was defeated amid allegations that as a federal prosecutor he sought to suppress the black vote. He subsequently ran for the Senate, and now in his third term has repeatedly said he holds no grudge, and particularly because of his experience wants to make sure that Sonia Sotomayor is treated fairly.

Republicans have several lines of inquiry they'll stress at these hearings. They'll use the New Haven firefighters' case as an anchor for other questions about the politics of racial identity. When the city of New Haven tossed out a promotion exam that produced no African-American promotions, white firefighters brought a reverse discrimination claim that was rejected by an appeals court panel that included Sotomayor. The Supreme Court overturned that decision last month. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell.

Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): Judge Sotomayor got the law really wrong in the Ricci case and the New Haven firefighters suffered for it.

TOTENBERG: Senator Sessions has sought to link that decision to Sotomayor's statement at a speech that a, quote, "wise Latina woman could sometimes reach better conclusions than a white male judge."

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): The firefighters were denied promotion, and under her stated philosophy, her prior background they are left to wonder was perhaps the reason they lost in her court because she brought her background and her prejudices to bear on the case and did not give them a fair case.

TOTENBERG: Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy has responded with a veiled warning.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont; Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee): It's not just Judge Sotomayor who is being watched by the American public here, but the United States Senate.

TOTENBERG: Behind the scenes, a battle is brewing over timing with conservative groups pressing the GOP to at least drag out the confirmation process for a, quote, "great debate." Manuel Miranda who heads the Third Branch, a coalition of conservative group leaders, wants time during the August Congressional Recess to gin up opposition on radio talk shows and with grassroots groups.

Mr. MANUEL MIRANDA (Chairman, Third Branch Conference): The right never gains if you don't have this issue on the table.

TOTENBERG: Miranda is hoping that Sotomayor will not have learnt the post-Bork script of the artful dodger.

Senator, when I joined that opinion, I felt I was constrained by Supreme Court precedent and the precedent in my circuit. But because the issue could come before me again, if confirmed, I cannot tell you what my views might be in the future.

For Republicans, the Sotomayor nomination poses a particularly difficult political problem because she is the first Hispanic nominee to the court. And Latinos, the fastest growing group of voters in the country, have been deserting the Republican Party in growing numbers.

This week the nation's two leading Spanish language TV networks have beefed up their coverage of these hearings, and Latino groups have live streaming coverage on their Web sites. Conservative activist like Mr. Miranda acknowledged they have little chance of defeating Sotomayor. They console themselves that Democrats in 2005 divided equally on the nomination of John Roberts to be chief justice, freeing up all but four Democrats to risk appearing partisan by opposing the next Bush nominee to the court, Samuel Alito.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. 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 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.