GOP eyes future on Sotomayor

Republicans will use Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings next week to set the stage for future battles over President Obama’s judicial nominations.

With Sotomayor’s confirmation seen as a certainty, GOP senators and aides said they will use the hearings to paint Obama as a president appointing liberal, politically minded judges to the federal bench.

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The hearings, beginning on Monday, “will give us an opportunity to shed light on the Obama standard for judicial nominees — a standard that appears to prioritize political views over the Constitution,” an aide to one GOP senator said.

The hearings are important for the GOP to rally its base, and confirmation battles can raise funds for a political party. Because Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic judge on the high court, the hearings also pose risks to the GOP, which is losing Hispanic voters, a fast-growing segment of the electorate.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a former judge on the Texas Supreme Court, also said the GOP will look forward from the Sotomayor hearings. He said his party is “cognizant that whatever happens in this case will be alluded to in the future in terms of how nominations ought to go.”

The Republican guest list shows the party plans on making affirmative action a central part of its argument about Sotomayor, as the GOP has invited two firefighters involved in one of Sotomayor’s most controversial decisions to testify.

Ben Vargas and Frank Ricci, the lead plaintiff in Ricci vs. DeStefano, will testify about Sotomayor’s ruling that the New Haven, Conn., fire department acted constitutionally when it discounted the results of a qualifying test for promotions. Several white candidates passed the tests, but minority candidates did not.

The Supreme Court overturned the decision last week.

Democrats and the White House said Republicans should judge Sotomayor’s nomination on her merits.

“Her confirmation process should not be about frameworks, future candidates, farfetched theories — it should be about one thing: a fair consideration of Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination,” an administration aide said. “It’s not surprising that they don’t want to focus on the record of a former prosecutor who sat on the federal bench for 17 years.”

Democrats plan to have New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg testify on Sotomayor’s behalf. They have also invited former FBI Director Louis Freeh and former New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who was Sotomayor’s boss when she was a prosecutor.

Former major-league pitcher David Cone is also scheduled to testify, according to a Judiciary Committee press release. Sotomayor is known for being a New York Yankees fan.

Marge Baker of People for the American Way, a group backing Sotomayor’s confirmation, said framing the debate with an eye to the future is the Republicans’ “fall-back strategy.”

“I think it’s evidence of how strong a nominee she is,” Baker said. She added that Republicans have been unable to find anything that “has legs” in their attempt to cast a pall over Sotomayor.

Baker said Republicans have been forced to retreat on their strategy because of a backlash against comments by some conservatives, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who called Sotomayor a “racist” because of her comment that she believed a wise Latina woman would make a better decision based on her background than would a white male.

“I think they’re feeling disciplined by the harsh overreaction in the beginning,” Baker said. “They got very quickly that that didn’t sit well, and I think they’ve been sobered by that.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said there is no grand plan to use Sotomayor as a stage for future showdowns. However, he said the hearings “would naturally do that” by highlighting issues important to the GOP, as well as Sotomayor’s positions.

But Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said any suggestion that there is a plan to use Sotomayor as a starting point for future battles is “a fictitious story placed by the media.”

“It’s not about laying the groundwork,” Coburn said. “The fact is, she is who she is. And if you appoint a hardcore liberal to the court, that ought to be exposed. I don’t think there’s any structural plan to do that.”