What We Didn’t Learn

We know less about Sonia Sotomayor now than we did a week ago.

US Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor

Now that we have tweeted, dialogued, podcast, analyzed, and live-blogged these hearings into oblivion, we can finally step back ask ourselves: What have we learned? That Sonia Sotomayor’s 17-year judicial record is almost completely without blemish. That she comes across very smart on all things legal. That her “wise Latina” comment was probably regrettable. That she had nothing even close to a “complete meltdown.” That she will certainly be confirmed. That, in short, she did well if not brilliantly. (We also learned that she likes Perry Mason and that Al Franken is funny. But we knew that already.)

What we haven’t learned is anything more about her views on guns, gay marriage, abortion, military tribunals, or eminent domain. We may actually know less about her views on these matters today than we did going into these hearings.

The fact that almost everybody in the media has interpreted these four days of hearings in precisely the same way tells me this was really outstanding scripted television. There’s no ambiguity about what happened here this week—only a lingering question about whether the “real” Sonia Sotomayor is best divined by looking at her judicial record or a line from her speeches. We can debate that question—who is the “real” Sonia Sotomayor?—until the cows come home, and we will never know the answer. This process was never going to give us that answer. She’ll let us know soon enough, I imagine.

The amazing thing, come to think of it, is that after four long days of testimony and questions and expert panels, our collective knowledge about this nominee has actually decreased. Abortion rights advocates and gun groups on both sides are about equally anxious now. Liberals are more nervous than ever about her pro-prosecution zeal. Conservatives have no idea whatsoever what she thinks about gay marriage. When folks complain about the confirmation system, they generally say we learn nothing about the nominee. In this particular case, most of us have actually had to un-learn what we thought we knew about her going in.

This whole process was designed to divine the unknowable from a nominee determined not to be known. We’d likely do better with a Magic 8 Ball. Still, we covered it as if it were better than the Michael Jackson story. (Thank God.) That’s because, mercifully, Americans care so much about their Supreme Court, they just really wanted to meet its next member. I don’t know whether this process showed her or the Senate judiciary committee to their best advantages. In a way, it mainly showed the federal judiciary to its best advantage, largely because Sotomayor was such a forceful advocate for the judicial process: She doesn’t bargain with senators. She doesn’t approach broad policy questions without an actual legal dispute before her. And, as she told Sen. Tom Coburn, she doesn’t want to be a senator.

I think most Americans are smart enough to know that judges are more than just umpires. If they were, we would need only one, and it could be a supercomputer. But the fact that we seem to want one so very badly may be the highest compliment we can pay the courts. This was, at heart, a very aspirational proceeding. I would hope that with the richness of our experience, we could craft a better way of doing all this—something that brings out the best in us.

I am not certain the confirmation process is fixable, although there are a lot of smart books out there on how to begin fixing it. All I know is that when bleary-eyed members of the press corps start showing one another their baby photos—the way you do on the last hour of a plane flight to Australia—it’s definitely time to pack it up and go home.