WASHINGTON — With Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor sitting in the witness chair, Democratic senators praised her wide-ranging judicial experience and her empathy for working people and the oppressed.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearings on Judge Sotomayor opened July 13 with her enjoying so much goodwill that South Carolina’s Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told her she will be confirmed “unless you have a complete meltdown.”

Nevertheless, the shrunken GOP minority soldiered on, grasping at straws in their attempt to block her nomination. They were not helped when a fanatic leaped to his feet in the hearing room and started yelling that Sotomayor is a supporter of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that protects women’s right to an abortion. “Abortion is murder,” he raved before police dragged him from the room.

In his opening statement, Maryland’s Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin recalled growing up in Baltimore with segregated schools and poisonous anti-Semitism. Then came the Supreme Court’s unanimous Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation ruling. A few years later, President Lyndon Johnson nominated Thurgood Marshall to become the first African American Supreme Court justice. Cardin said he hopes that Sotomayor, like Marshall, views the Constitution as a “living document” that should be interpreted “to move our nation forward” toward more expansive civil rights and civil liberties.

Sen. Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, said the role of the Supreme Court is to “safeguard the rule of law” in the face of recent “egregious” assaults on Constitutional rights by the previous administration, such as the detention and torture of detainees at the Guantanamo detention center. A Supreme Court nominee “must have the courage to stand up” to executive branch power, he said.

Feingold derided the GOP’s hypocritical refrain that the Democrats want to pack the high court with activists intent on imposing a “liberal agenda” on the nation.

In fact, he charged, it is the right-wing majority on the current Supreme Court that has repeatedly ignored long-standing legal precedent while legislating from the bench. The right-wing majority, he said, “even determined a presidential election,” referring to their role in certifying George W. Bush’s theft of the 2000 election.

Feingold also debunked Republican charges that Sotomayor is a “racist.” They pin this charge on a 2001 speech at the University of California, at Berkeley in which she said, “I would hope that a wise Latina women with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

Said Feingold, “There is absolutely nothing in her record” to sustain the charge that she is a “racist.” On the contrary, he said, she is a “thoughtful and humble judge.”

One after another, the Republican senators on the panel trotted out arguments that Sotomayor will rule on the basis of “empathy” for certain groups rather than wear a “blindfold” and base her rulings on cold, hard facts.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., told Sotomayor that these arguments are “slogans, not a real criticism of your record.”

Whitehouse said the Republican right is waging a “covert” crusade “seeking a particular kind of judge who will deliver a particular kind of outcome” favorable to expanded executive power and corporate interests.

Rhode Island’s freshman senator, a former state attorney-general, cited Chief Justice John Robert’s comment that justices are “umpires” who only apply the rules, not make the rules. Whitehouse said, in virtually every case Roberts has heard in the four years he has been on the Supreme Court, “he has stood with the prosecutor, not the defense, with the executive branch, not the legislative branch, with the corporations not the individual’s rights. Some umpire!”

Whitehouse cited the “infamous” split 5-4 ruling by the Roberts court that rejected Lily Ledbetter’s appeal against job discrimination — a ruling so brazen that the House and Senate passed and President Obama signed into law a statute reversing it soon after they took office last January. Roberts, the senator added, “has not kept the promise he made to be modest, to uphold precedent and avoid legislating from the bench.”

Whitehouse quoted Alexander Hamilton observing that a Supreme Court justice must uphold the Constitution and stand with the “oppressed.”

“None of this is balls and strikes,” the Rhode Island senator said. It is the “defense of the less powerful among us, those sweating out how to make ends meet that month.” In this age, he said, “the oppression falls on the poor and the voiceless.” The Supreme Court should be a place “where the comfortable can be afflicted and the afflicted can find comfort.”

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