Monday, July 20, 2009

Republican senators did not cover themselves with glory in their questioning last week of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. They failed to ask questions of great relevance to public understanding of the judge’s record and integrity. They owe it to all Americans to get tough enough to force an examination of whether the judge may have perjured herself during her testimony.

The questions for which Judge Sotomayor’s answers are almost impossible to believe involved legal briefs on abortion cases that were filed by the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund during the 12 years Judge Sotomayor sat on its board. During eight of those years, she served on the board’s litigation committee. Board minutes show that she was responsible for “reviewing and recommending a litigation program.” New York Times stories describe her as “frequently meeting with the legal staff to review the status of cases” and as “an involved and ardent supporter of their various legal efforts.”

Yet Judge Sotomayor told Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, that she “never reviewed those [abortion] briefs.” Because of the available board minutes and the New York Times story, that claim seems highly suspicious. Yet senators did not press her further on the issue.

While the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund has provided the Senate Judiciary Committee with all the documents it claims are “responsive” to the committee’s request for a review of Judge Sotomayor’s work with the group, many boxes of documents remain unreviewed by the committee itself. In light of the judge’s hard-to-believe testimony, senators ought to use every procedural arrow in their quiver to delay a committee vote until Senate staff has had a chance to review the remaining papers from the nominee’s years at the fund.

Republican senators also never once asked Judge Sotomayor to explain her bizarre judicial opinion that currently incarcerated murderers and rapists have a right to vote. On individual cases, they did touch on her strange proclivity to write incredibly brief, dismissive opinions on her most controversial cases, but they did not ask her about her pattern of doing so.

Republican senators did not ask her about her repeated habit on less controversial cases of going into so much detail that a Washington Post sub-headline said, “She Almost Oversteps Her Role, Experts Say.” They did not note that this tendency to overwrite on most cases makes it even odder that she is so dismissive on the big cases — so dismissive, indeed, that other judges, courts and respected legal analysts have castigated her actions in stark terms.

Finally, they failed to ask sharp follow-up questions on other important points too numerous to mention.

The public deserves full answers and a full and open debate. Senate Republicans ought to demand enough time to review the judge’s answers to written questions they submitted to her on Friday. They should use their automatic “hold” in the committee to put off a committee approval vote for at least a week. They should demand and use every last hour of available debate time on the full Senate floor both before and after the majority files for cloture.

A lifetime appointment is worth a few additional weeks of investigation to see if the nominee is worthy of the job. Republicans, who are getting accustomed to being the minority party again, need to put some effort into being a stronger opposition.

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