Everything you need to know about Sonia Sotomayor's upcoming hearings.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
July 11 2009 7:55 AM

Confirmation in 60 Seconds

Everything you need to know about Sonia Sotomayor's upcoming hearings.

Sonia Sotomayor. Click image to expand.
Sonia Sotomayor

Judge Sonia Sotomayor faces off against the Senate judiciary committee next week in a bid to become the 111th justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. The public discussion of her suitability for that job suggests that the upcoming hearing will be a carnival of unanswerable questions ("Judge Sotomayor, can you prove to this committee that you are not, in fact, a reverse racist?") and nonresponsive answers ("Senator, I must decline to answer that question as it may come before me in some future case.").

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

Senators more accustomed to making speeches than asking questions will spill thousands of words in lieu of simple inquiries. And a judge more accustomed to asking questions than making speeches will avoid answering those simple questions in a blizzard of formulaic denials. The judicial confirmation process is more or less the political equivalent of Dancing With the Stars, in that the senators perform complex leaps and turns while admiring their hair in the mirror, while the nominee shuffles her feet a bit and calls it the foxtrot.

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For those brave souls choosing to watch this spectacle on live television all week, it's useful to point out that most of her interlocutors will not be addressing themselves to Judge Sotomayor at all, although they will frequently use her name. Instead, they will be talking aloud to their constituents back home, with Judge Sotomayor serving as a sort of constitutional blackboard on which to sketch out their legal views: Senators will talk at length about their pet projects and concerns, then turn to ask Judge Sotomayor what she thinks of their pet projects and concerns. She will say she is for them.

Thus, Sen. Lindsey Graham will say he is for adhering to the rule of law in wartime. Judge Sotomayor will heartily agree that the rule of law is most excellent in wartime. Sen. Chuck Grassley will expound upon the False Claims Act. Sen. Russ Feingold will talk about adherence to FISA. Judge Sotomayor will say vague, nice things about the False Claims Act and FISA, in much the same way she would say vague, nice things about a new baby held out for her inspection.

Other senators, such as Arlen Specter, will attempt to tap into Judge Sotomayor's judicial subconscious, asking trick questions about whether she thinks precedent is important (she'll say it is) and what she thinks of specific cases (she will take a page from Chief Justice John Roberts' book and summarize cases, without opining on them). She will make blurry-yet-bold pronouncements about the right to privacy, personal autonomy, and bodily integrity—none of which will clarify her stand on abortion.

Both sides will ask how it's possible that she has ruled in a handful of abortion cases over the years without ever addressing the rightness of abortion itself. She will reply that she is a careful minimalist who answers only the question before her. Both sides will grind their teeth in frustration at this marked absence of judicial activism, which makes it very hard to tell whether she will be a judicial activist once confirmed. Jeff Sessions will rail that Sotomayor should have been more of a judicial activist (he will say "zealous constitutional watchdog") where gun rights were concerned. Everyone will thus agree that judicial activism is bad except insofar as it's good.

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