Sonia Goes to Washington

Sotomayor endures a marathon meet-and-greet in the Senate.

Read more from Slate’s coverage of Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination.

Sonia Sotomayor. Click image to expand.
Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor

If there’s going to be any unpleasantness over the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, today was not the day for it. The judge made her first visit to Capitol Hill to meet with the senators who will determine her fate, and everyone was on their best behavior. Republican Jeff Sessions, the ranking minority member on the judiciary committee, not only promised her a fair hearing; he promised her a good time. “I hope you will enjoy it,” he said, referring to the confirmation hearings. Sotomayor responded, “I think we’ll all enjoy it.”

For Sotomayor, the day was a chance to make a good first impression. For Republicans, it was another chance to make a better one. No one was calling her a “racist,” and Sessions dismissed Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, who had characterized her that way. “The people out there are not party officials,” he said. When the process was over, said Sessions, he hoped people would say, “This is the best hearing we’ve ever had.”

The watchwords from Republicans were respect and fair, but that didn’t mean they weren’t ready to make their case. Sen. John Kyl blasted the president’s “empathy” criteria and said he hoped Sotomayor didn’t share it. “What this could boil down to—and we’ll have to examine very carefully all of the evidence—is what this judge’s view of judging is,” he said. “Is it the same as the president’s, which I reject, or is it more in common with what past judges and justices have done in deciding the cases on the merits rather their own feelings?”

Republicans also tried to put a damper on White House plans to have the Senate vote on her confirmation before the August recess. Republicans say it’s not possible to evaluate her long record fairly in such a short time. White House officials say that timeline is necessary so that she can prepare for the October start of the court. September will give her plenty of time, say Republicans—and some Senate Democrats, who say confirmation by August, the Senate’s supposed deadline for passing health care legislation, is impossible.

There was still a lot of debate about Sotomayor’s comment that in sex- and race-discrimination cases, a Latina woman would more often than not make better decisions than a white man would. Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the judiciary committee, used his early morning meeting to try to clear up any confusion. “Ultimately and completely, a judge has to follow the law no matter what their upbringing has been,” he said, quoting her.

But Sen. Lindsey Graham wasn’t satisfied. He will meet with Sotomayor tomorrow and wants to ask her about these comments. If he had said the same thing but reversed the order, “I know what would have come my way,” he said. “I’m willing to listen to her about that statement. I’m not going to base my decision on that statement, but I think it needs to be addressed, and I think it was inappropriate, and she should apologize, because it offended me. … I want my judge, if I find myself in court, I want to believe that that judge is going to fairly evaluate me, and quite frankly she’s got to convince me that if I found myself in litigation with a Latina woman, that I’d get a fair shake.”

Graham also will be looking for clues about her judicial temperament. That was an issue important enough to President Obama that he sought information directly during the search process. Graham plans to follow the president’s lead. “I like judges that are well received by lawyers,” he said. “I don’t like bully judges, and her evaluations from those who appeared before her are troubling. She seems at times arrogant and bullying, and I like spirited exchanges. Scalia is a very involved judge, but I don’t think he’s a bully. So, yes, the evaluations from the members of the bar who appeared before her about demeanor trouble me, and we’ll talk about them.”

While Sotomayor was mostly engaged in a series of private conversations about the law, she was also witnessing a time-honored Washington circus. If she makes it to the Supreme Court, she will enjoy years isolated from the media and many of the city’s rituals. She won’t have to give press conferences, and at the State of the Union, she’ll be expected to sit motionless, while all around her, politicians lose their heads.

Perhaps because she is about to get a lifetime exemption from the nutty rituals of Washington, she has to endure a concentrated dose of absurdity. Today was Day One.

A job interview can make anyone nervous. Now imagine you have to walk to the interview through a dog kennel while you’re carrying a veal cutlet. (Fox may have this show in development.) Sotomayor’s task was to say nothing in public. The press wanted at least one small peep. They yelled question after question as she emerged from her first meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “How was your day?” “How did it go?” Before another meeting, a television producer yelled, “How do you like being called a racist?”

Sotomayor may run a “hot court,” but she was emotionless. She smiled, but on a day of serial photo-ops a smile is more of a necessity, like a Senate visitor’s pass, than a sign of genuine emotion. Two security guards traveling with her fended off aggressive reporters. One had Sotomayor’s same hairstyle and black pinstriped jacket. If things had gotten too hairy, she would have been able to jump in as a stunt double.

Before each meeting with a senator, Sotomayor had to endure the same procedure. Placed in a wing backed chair across from her host, she watched aides open the office door, releasing the cameramen into the room. The herd clambered through the narrow doorway to get the first and best shot. Arms were mangled, faces bruised, and family lineage imperiled. (Down the hall from Sessions’ office, kids participating in a Reading Is Fundamental literacy event shouted, “No more monkeys jumping on the bed,” as if narrating the scene.)

With the cameras in place, the public small talk started—a brutal thing to endure. Leahy showed Sotomayor pictures of his grandchildren on his desk. His screen saver cycled through photographs of his family and one of the senator arm-in-arm with Bono. The cameras clicked and clicked, taking pictures of the senator’s pictures while the judge judged them favorably. “Oh, wow,” she said when Leahy pointed out a photo of his grandchildren at the White House Easter Egg Roll. In Reid’s office, the judge sat and smiled as the senator referred to her as both an underdog and a top dog.

By the end of the first day, Sotomayor had endured nine meetings in eight hours on the Hill. She’ll have to do it all again tomorrow. And if it all goes well, she’ll make it to the building (and the courtroom) across the street from the Capitol, where life will be so quiet, she might long for a little of today’s mayhem.