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CURL: Easy win for Sotomayor a laughing matter

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 29, 2009

POLITICAL THEATER COLUMN:

Tuesday's vote on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor was so far in the bag that minutes before the Senate Judiciary Committee took a roll call, Chairman Patrick J. Leahy was on his cell phone, chatting and smiling and having a grand old time.

The Vermont Democrat had already drawn laughter from the crowd in Hart 216 when he said, "I look forward to a bipartisan vote."

While Mr. Leahy is legally blind in one eye, the fourth-most senior member of the Senate surely had no illusion that Republicans would support the self-described "wise Latina woman."

And they didn't. All but one voted against the first Hispanic nominee to the high court, and several seemed miffed at President Obama and his so-called "empathy standard -- his belief that judges should mine their compassion in addition to having a deference to the Constitution.

"I did not use the political standard taken by Sen. Barack Obama in 2005 when he voted against Chief Justice John Roberts," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch before announcing his intention to vote "no." "Sen. Obama voted against Chief Justice Roberts because he thought the nominee's personal values, perspectives and empathy would lead him to results that Sen. Obama would not like."

Fighting Jeff Sessions also lashed out at the president, who as a senator voted against then-Judges Roberts and Samuel Alito, both nominated by President George W. Bush.

"This national discussion has been a rejection of" the empathy standard, the Alabama Republican said. "The nominee herself basically rejected that."

As several Democrats giggled it up with curious picture-takers, Mr. Sessions stood alone after the 13-6 vote to move the nomination to the full Senate. The vote was almost straight along party lines, with only Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham joining Democrats in advancing the historic nomination.

Republicans were trapped in a difficult place from the outset: Opposing the first Hispanic woman to the high court would alienate the growing voting bloc, but supporting her would anger the National Rifle Association, which announced Thursday it would "score" the vote against aye-sayers because of the judge's stance on Second Amendment rights.

Hispanic voters are roughly split on Judge Sotomayor -- 47 percent in favor and 43 percent against, according to a Zogby poll released Monday. Gun owners, however, oppose her confirmation by more than a 2-to-1 margin -- 67 percent to 30 percent.

Mr. Graham didn't much care either way.

"I feel good about Judge Sotomayor," he said with a Southern drawl and a country smile. "I would not have chosen her, but I understand why President Obama did."

While he ridiculed the president's criteria -- "This empathy idea makes us all kinda Dr. Phils" -- he said he based his vote solely on the nominee's qualifications.

"I rejected the empathy-heart standard and went back to what we used to do around here. I found that she's extremely well-qualified," he said, calling the judge "left of center, but certainly in the mainstream."

As a group, Democrats focused on the powerful personal story of the 55-year-old federal appeals court judge -- the daughter of Puerto Rican parents who was raised in a South Bronx housing project. Several brought up her bootstrap path to success as a prime reason to approve her nomination.

"First, in terms of personal history," Sen. Dianne Feinstein said in opening her remarks. "What a great story it is for America," gushed Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat.

Republicans, on the other hand, based their opposition on her judicial record and her statements outside the courtroom.

"I think she is one impressive person, but that is not enough," Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said.

But in the end, even Mr. Sessions, alone at a microphone outside after the vote, acknowledged that it's all over but the shouting.

• Joseph Curl can be reached at jcurl@washingtontimes.com