The Senate Judiciary Committee voted almost along party lines yesterday to send Judge Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the full Senate for a confirmation vote. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) was the only Republican to vote in favor of her nomination. Two other senators, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), voted for the very first time in fairly lengthy Senate careers against a Supreme Court nominee. What's interesting about this is that this nominee's actual judicial record is probably more moderate than anyone else on President Obama's shortlist, and her decisions have been more moderate than several nominees Senators Hatch and Grassley have confirmed. So what's going on here?
I think there are two explanations. One has to do with our location in the history of the judicial confirmation process. The other has to do with the Two Sotomayors narrative that the Republican senators have been crafting. I've talked about the judicial confirmation process before (most recently here). I do think Republicans are getting frustrated that they've been letting Democratic judicial nominees sail through because of their commitment to give presidents deference, while Democrats have been blocking, filibustering, and voting against nominees who are as qualified and as ideologically-mainstream as the nominees Republicans have not opposed. Even some who are committed to showing presidents deference are going to moderate that commitment in such a setting if they think the judiciary is at stake because of the practical consequences of the two parties having different approaches to the amount of deference senators should give the president. This probably gives the second issue more weight than it might otherwise have, but I think it's at least a significant driving force in Republican resistance to Judge Sotomayor's nomination, even if they're not saying this in their explanations for their votes.
The explicit reason most of the Republican senators are giving depends on a running narrative from the Republican senators on the judiciary committee about the Sonia Sotomayor of her speeches and the Sonia Sotomayor of her decisions, and they want to know which one will appear on the Supreme Court if she's confirmed. Some of these differences are overstated, but some issues do raise a concern for many people. We might assume that a judge who has consistently ruled in an unbiased way in the majority of cases (which all sides agree is true of her) will continue to do so on the Supreme Court, even if she has expressed views in speeches that might seem at odds with that. It's been interesting to see some of the Democratic senators defending the speeches outright, while others have insisted on standing by her judicial record as a way of creating distance between her judicial decisions and her public statements.
Sotomayor herself has notably taken the second approach and backtracked from a number of things that she seems to have clearly endorsed in those speeches, emphasizing that her decisions have consistently applied the law and not interpreted it in light of the things the speeches seem to involve. She has articulated a view in her hearings on the relevance of foreign law to judging that sounds more like Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito in their resistance to use of foreign law for interpreting U.S. law and the U.S. Constitution. Consider her written response to Senator Sessions' questions:
In my view, American courts should not rely on decisions of foreign courts as binding or controlling precedent, except when American law requires a court to do so. In some limited circumstances, decisions of foreign courts can be a source of ideas, just as law review articles or treatises can be sources of ideas. The Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment cases establish how the Court considers constitutional challenges to the death penalty, and I accept those decisions.
On the other hand, her speeches on the subject sounded more like Justices Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, who have on several occasions used foreign law as a reason to consider evolving standards of decency or a new national consensus of policy preferences as reasons to take the U.S. Constitution and U.S. laws to mean something very different from what they originally meant and have meant for the entire history of interpretation (e.g. on what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment or how to interpret due process in the 14th Amendment).
In these cases she's right to say that there were other issues, so the appeal to foreign law doesn't determine the outcome by itself, but a lot of readers have come away from the opinions with the impression that foreign law was driving it to begin with, and the justices had to find some way to justify their policy preference rather than simply deciding things according to precedent or what the text of the Constitution requires. So what she says here seems to me to be at odds with what it seems to me that these decisions she cites favorably actually do. Also, her speech on this question expressed concerns about how the United States would be viewed if we were significantly at odds with international law on important issues. A judge could be concerned about how our laws are viewed as a step toward arguing for changes in the laws via legislative process, but this statement wasn't in a speech advocating that. It was in a speech advocating the use of foreign law to get ideas for what judges in the U.S. can do.
Given a difference between her opinions as a judge and her speeches as a private citizen, the distinction between appellate judges and Supreme Court justices might make all the difference in which one of those would appear on the Supreme Court. If her views from her speeches really are worrisome, and the only thing keeping her from enacting them is that she's bound by Supreme Court precedent and Second Circuit precedent in her current role, with a Supreme Court review always possible for any decision she renders, then she will be freed from those constraints on the Supreme Court. That's why the narrative of the Two Sotomayors is still compelling for many people as an argument against her nomination. It's no defense, if this is right, to point out that most of her decisions have been in terms of legal rather than policy arguments or to point out that she hasn't based her decisions on empathy but on the law.