The Irony of Sen. Jeff Sessions

15 07 2009

Supreme Court confirmation hearings have been advertised as a study in contrasts between what our nation’s two parties envision the role of the courts in our society and highlight competing ideas on grand Constitutional questions. Of course, in more recent decades they have fertile ground to perpetuate our ongoing culture wars in some form or another. Unlike years past, Judge Sonia Sotomayor nomination has not inspired fury of either side in the abortion debate, which I don’t lament at all, with greater questions of racial and gender gaining more attention.

But today’s hearing had its fair share of pettiness and narrow minded questioning.

Recognizing the dishonest acrimonious shout fest that has ensued in the last few weeks, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy cautioned his Republican collegues against yeilding to “outside pressure groups that sought to create a caricature of Judge Sotomayor while belittling her record and achievements, her intelligence.” In his opening statement yesterday, Sen. Leahy suggested that history will not look kindly upon Senators who will try to embarass Judge Sotomayor as that chamber once did during Justice Thurgood Marshall’s confirmation hearings, the first African American on the high court, by asking “questions designed to embarrass him, questions such as are you prejudice against the white people in the South.”

Sen. Leahy cited another low point of when Justice Louis Brandies had to beat back anti-Semitic charges of him being a radical jurist. “I hope that’s a time of our past” said the Senator from Vermont.

Apparently not. Republican Senator Jeff Sessions in particular led the charge in criticizing Judge Sonia Sotomayor by questioning her impartiality even in the face of all the statiscal evidence of her rulings underscoring that she is not some left wing judge that implusively sides with victims in discrimination cases or with plantiffs suing the employers or promoting some other lefty cause. Predictably, during is questioning period he spent an inordinate amount of time on the wise Latina remark as a reliable indication that she will somehow be biased against those who are not people of color or women, i.e., white men.

Sen. Sessions understood Judge Sotomayor’s admission that like any judge her life experiences shape her judicial thinking and that impariality is an aspirational goal rarely if ever achieved, as reason to suspect that she has a hidden agenda. “So how can you reconcile your speeches which repeatedly assert that impartiality is a near aspiration which may not be possible in all or even most cases with your oath that you’ve taken twice which requires impartiality?” asked Sen. Sessions. One has to wonder who are these genuinely imparitial people that Sessions seems to believe exist.

For her part Judge Sotomayor said, “That’s why we have appellate judges that are more than one judge because each of us, from our life experiences, will more easily see different perspectives argued by parties.” As a lay person, this strikes me as a fairly obvious observation.

At one point, the Senator from Alabama inexplicably thought it was necessary to state that a fellow Puerto Rican Judge Jose Cabranes disagreed with Judge Sotomayor’s finding in the Ricci decision. The Ricci case involved a group of white firefighters and one Hispanic who sued for racial discrimination when the city of New Haven, CT when it decided to throw out a promotional examine after not enough African Americans scored high enough to be considered for a promotion. Judge Sotomayor sided with New Haven in finding that the test had a disparate impact on African Americans under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Her decision was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court a few weeks ago by a vote of 5-4.

“Had you voted with Judge Cabranes, himself of Puerto Rican ancestry, had you voted with him, you could’ve changed that case,” Sessions said. With that remark, Senator Sessions ironically he appeared to be promoting the same kind of group loyalty that he thought that Judge Sotomayor could not avoid.

Interestingly enough, Sen. Sessions used Judge Sotomayor’s association with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund to try to portray her as an activist judge even though Judge Cabranes, a Republican appointee, is a founder of the famed civil rights group.

In sum, we learned more about the prejudices of a particular Republican Senator than we did of the nominee.

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