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Commentary: Why GOP senators misfired on judge

  • Story Highlights
  • Ruben Navarrette: Senate committeee due to vote on Sotomayor this week
  • He says GOP senators hurt themselves in their questioning of judge
  • He says they got hung up on the "wise Latina" comment
  • Navarrette: Senators should know how one phrase can be taken out of context
By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr., a nationally syndicated columnist and a regular contributor to CNN.com, is the author of "A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano." Read his column here.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. says GOP senators hurt themselves in their questioning of Sonia Sotomayor.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. says GOP senators hurt themselves in their questioning of Sonia Sotomayor.

SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- Judge Sonia Sotomayor cruised through her confirmation hearings without a scratch.

Too bad we can't say the same about the seven Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee who tried to dent her credibility and wound up demolishing their own.

The problem wasn't that Republican senators challenged Sotomayor. That's their job. The problem was that they did their job in such an obsessive and boorish way so as to make clear to the entire country that they had no idea how to deal with someone like Sotomayor. Like when Tom Coburn of Oklahoma tried to be funny by pulling out his Ricky Ricardo accent and informing Sotomayor that she had "some 'splaining to do." All this talk about whether the nominee was ready for the senators, and the senators clearly weren't ready for the likes of her.

Still, whether folks are ready or not, Sotomayor seems headed for the Supreme Court. The Senate Judiciary Committee was supposed to vote last week on the nomination but Republicans requested a postponement until Tuesday of this week.

One of Sotomayor's harshest critics among Republicans, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina -- who assured the judge that she'd be confirmed absent a "meltdown" (a sexist comment you'd never hear directed at a male judge) -- has said that he plans to vote for her. Fellow Republicans Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Jon Kyl of Arizona, and John Cornyn of Texas have all said they plan to vote "no."

Graham was, by far, the most interesting member of the Republican opposition. Along with Sessions, he was the most aggressive of Sotomayor's critics. Both men tried to take her down a peg and wound up trying the patience of millions of Americans watching the hearings at home.

Graham gave lip service to the idea of welcoming into the practice of law people of different colors and gender and backgrounds -- as long as they didn't try to change their environment once they broke through.

Other times, Graham sounded like a high school civics teacher asking the federal judge if she understood the proper role of the judiciary. Some of his colleagues did the same thing. After deciding more than 3,000 cases in 17 years on the bench, Sotomayor probably knows more about the Constitution than all the GOP senators put together.

It was painful to watch them lecture the judge about how to be a judge despite the fact that only two of the seven -- Graham and Cornyn -- have ever been judges. Graham served as a military judge in the Air Force, on an interim basis. Cornyn is a former member of the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Appeals.

And, just like that, advice and consent became antagonize and condescend.

Despite the multitude of subjects worthy of discussion, all the Republican senators wanted to talk about -- over and over again -- was the nominee's comment about how she hoped a "wise Latina" would reach a better conclusion than a white male.

Apoplectic over that remark, Republicans were so busy defending the honor of white males that they missed the chance to claim credit. They could have pointed out that it was a Republican president -- George H.W. Bush -- who put Sotomayor on the federal bench in 1992, starting the journey that has taken her to the doorstep of making history as the first Latina on the Supreme Court.

Since it was always likely that Sotomayor would be confirmed by a Democratic-controlled Senate, Republicans on the committee could have made lemons into lemonade by grabbing the moment and using it to make the point that their party does, on occasion, open doors for the talented but underrepresented. Instead, they gave the appearance of standing in the doorway.

Republican senators also missed the chance to make a larger point about judging people for their words. They know all about how unfair it is to judge a person's entire public career on the basis of a speech or even a series of speeches.

Senators know all about speeches. If Sotomayor has given dozens of them, they've given hundreds. And as such, they should understand better than most how part of a speech can be taken out of context or how those with agendas will often hear what they want to hear.

Like most public officials, the Republican senators on the committee knew full well that one's remarks can be sliced and diced, cut and pasted, maligned and misunderstood. They also know that the best way to discourage the expression of original thoughts by public officials is to punish officials for saying provocative things.

Because of what they and many of their colleagues have gone through, and will no doubt go through again, Republican senators should have been able to see through the tempest caused by Sotomayor's "wise Latina" comments.

They know how frustrating it is to be judged by a sound bite or a statement. That experience should have allowed them to relate to Sotomayor with understanding, patience, compassion -- and what's that word? Oh yes, empathy.

As for saying provocative things, Graham was brutalized by nativists for telling a 2007 gathering of the National Council of La Raza that he and his Senate colleagues would get immigration reform done because they were going to "tell the bigots to shut up."

A former U.S. attorney, Sessions had his own 1986 bid for a federal judgeship derailed by accusations of racism. Thomas Figures, an African-American subordinate of Sessions, testified that "during a 1981 murder investigation involving the Ku Klux Klan, Sessions was heard by several colleagues commenting that he 'used to think they [the KKK] were OK' until he found out some of them were 'pot smokers.' " Sessions claimed at the time that his remarks were taken out of context.

I feel for you, Senator. There's a lot of that going around.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr

All About Sonia SotomayorLindsay GrahamJeff Sessions

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