Monday, July 13, 2009

The Daily Strike-7/13/09-The Hearings: Day One

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. Time to review the day in politics, and it starts and ends in the Senate Judiciary committee. For a primer of the Sotomayor hearings, make sure to catch our Weekly Strike below.

SOTOMAYOR: The big story today, of course, was the first day of confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Only in the Senate would you take an entire day for opening statements and introductory speeches, but that's what we were faced with today. Actual questions begin tomorrow morning.

The hearing starting with a statement from the chairman, Senator Patrick Leahy (VT). He stayed away from the ideological battle at hand and emphasized the historic nature of Sotomayor's nomination. Next was the committee's ranking Republican, Senator Jeff Sessions (AL), who focused on one out of context remark from Sotomayor, made 8 years ago, by saying that no Senator should vote for a judge who would make decisions based on their own personal background. Other committee members then took turns giving lengthy opening statements. These statements are mostly political grandstanding, which is a major tradition in Supreme Court confirmation hearings. They do give us a hint, however, of what questions might be asked as the hearings continue. Here are some of the highlights of the questioning:

-Senator Graham (R-SC) was certainly the most blunt Senator. He said that Sotomayor would be confirmed barring any unforeseen error. He said that while he disagreed strongly with many of Sotomayor's views, he was undecided on her nomination because, ultimately, "Obama won the election." Part of the point of his statement was to attack SENATOR Obama in 2005 for opposing Chief Justice Roberts even though he was qualified. But I still got from this speech that Graham is leaning yes.

-Senator Russ Feingold was the most combative member on the Democratic side. He railed against Republican criticism of judicial activism by pointing out that the current Supreme Court has a whole portfolio of cases in which they've overturned settled precedent. He also, as expected, spoke against Bush administration abuses of executive power.

-Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) gave an insightful defense of the role of the judiciary. He rejected the Roberts assertion that Supreme Court justices are impartial umpires. Rather, he said, the Constitution designed the judicial branch to be a check against the passions of the moment.

-Senator Al Franken, making his debut on the national political scene, gave a very thoughtful opening statement, praising Sotomayor's qualifications and telling her that he was there to learn more. He is certainly trying to show that he can be sober and serious.

-Senators Sessions (AL), Cornyn (TX), Hatch (UT), Grassley (IA), Coburn (OK), Kyl (AZ) and Graham (SC) (every Republican on the committee) either mentioned Sotomayor's "wise Latina comment" or questioned whether Sotomayor would follow the law or be biased because of personal preferences. It seems like that was the standard attack line of choice.

-During opening statements, Senators were interrupted three separate times by anti-abortion protesters. They're probably hurting their own cause.

After the opening statements, Sotomayor was introduced by her two home state Senators, Democrats Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. Gillibrand's speech became a bit awkward when she ran over her time limit and asked an impatient Chairman Leahy for more time. Then, finally after 5 hours, we heard from the nominee herself. Sotomayor's opening statement was tempered and straightforward. After discussing her background, she summed up her legal philosophy as a "fidelity to the law." She then offered an insightful counter-attack to Conservative criticism that she'll make decisions based on personal experiences:

"The process of judging is enhanced when the arguments and concerns of the parties to the litigation are understood and acknowledged. That is why I generally structure my opinions by setting out what the law requires and then by explaining why a contrary position, sympathetic or not, is accepted or rejected. That is how I seek to strengthen both the rule of law and faith in the impartiality of our justice system. My personal and professional experiences help me listen and understand, with the law always commanding the result in every case."

Overall, it was a good opening day for Sotomayor. To use a football metaphor, she's already in the lead, she just needs to run out the clock. She certainly didn't say anything today that would raise eyebrows, which is a good thing considering the favorable position she finds herself in. I guess we'll see what she's truly made of during questions tomorrow.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I'm sure the President was tuned into the hearing today when he had time, but he also made some important news of his own. President Obama announced his pick for Surgeon General, and no, it's not CNN's Sanjay Gupta. Obama instead has opted for what seems like an inspiring nominee, Dr. Regina Benjamin of Alabama. Benjamin is a family physician who started a rural health clinic in the early 1990's. She started the clinic as part of an agreement to forgive her medical school tuition if she worked in an impoverished community, but continued to work there beyond her stated commitment, even though she received more lucrative offers. According to the associated press, Benjamin also served as the first African-American woman president of a state medical association and was one of 25 recipients of a 2008 award from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation totaling $500,000. Sure, the Surgeon General isn't the most powerful position in our government, but I'm glad Obama took a small step in making our government more meritocratic instead of appointing a big donor or a crony.

The President spent the afternoon meeting separately with the Columbus Crew soccer team, labor leaders, and members of the Jewish community. Quite an eclectic group. Tomorrow, the President meets with the Prime Minister of The Netherlands, holds an economic recovery event in Michigan, and throws out the first pitch at the MLB All Star Game.

THE SENATE: Besides the confirmation hearings, the Senate only took one vote today, to cut off debate on the nomination of Robert Groves to be the director of the census. The Senate voted 76-15 to cut off debate on the nominee, beating the 60 vote threshold comfortably. The nomination itself was confirmed by voice vote. All 15 no votes came from Republicans, who have all sorts of irrational worries when it comes to the census. The Senate moves on to the Defense Appropriations measure tomorrow, before ducking out early to watch the MLB All Star Game. You know, because they've been so productive recently.

THE HOUSE: Nothing the House today besides a few suspension bills. The big news will come tomorrow when House Democrats finally introduce the full version of the health care bill they intend to bring to three committees of jurisdiction later this week. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that the bill is a starting point, and will be open to negotiations in committee. This seems to be coded language that she doesn't have the votes to pass the bill yet, and that's why we all need to keep the grassroots pressure on in the coming weeks.

We will have full coverage of the bill's release tomorrow, and of course, we will keep you up to date on the confirmation hearings. Have a good night!

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