Sonia Sotomayor And GOP Obstruction Efforts: The Bigger Picture

When Republicans and conservatives aren’t on television suggesting Sonia Sotomayor isn’t fit to serve on the Supreme Court (or just outright insulting her)–when they go home at night and seriously consider what’s best for them and their movement–they should keep a couple things in mind:

First, that retiring Justice David Souter isn’t really all that conservative. Second, that, notwithstanding her upbringing and all the cable chatter, Sotomayor isn’t unusually liberal–which is to say, the political makeup of the court won’t be radically altered when she replaces him. Third, that if they lock arms and pull out all the stops and somehow block her nomination, there are plenty of other liberal jurists–some more liberal than she is–to take her place.

Technically, Republicans come into the Sotomayor confirmation process in an extremely weak position. Their caucus is only 40 members large. Four of those members are women. One is hispanic. And their ranks are teeming with people who’ve loudly decried the idea of filibustering judicial nominees in the recent past.

Now that same crew is faced with the prospect of playing the opposition (loyal or otherwise) to a 54 year old Hispanic female with honors degrees from Princeton and Yale and heaps of experience on the bench. Not exactly ideal circumstances.

At the same time, though, they’ve proven perfectly willing to stand athwart other, similarly qualified Obama nominees, most of whom serve (or will serve) in the executive branch for only a few years at the most.They’ve forced Democrats to file cloture on six nominees this Congress, far outpacing Democratic senators in the early days of the first Bush administration. Almost three weeks ago, they successfully prevented Interior Department nominee David Hayes from getting an up or down vote on the floor, who now waits patiently for another shot at confirmation–for basically no reason.

If that weren’t bad enough, the Democrats themselves can’t always be counted on to stand with their party against the filibuster, as Obama nominee Dawn Johnsen knows all too well.

But for all the Republicans’ procedural trickery, for all their willingness–even eagerness–to opportunistically slow down the pace of governance, slowing down the pace of governance is just about all they’ve accomplished. They’ve expertly marshaled what meager power they have against a number of nominees, and that still hasn’t been enough to force Obama to withdraw any names from consideration. (Bill Richardson, Judd Gregg, and Tom Daschle all withdrew, but for personal reasons).

So the question most likely isn’t if Sonia Sotomayor will be confirmed, but how long Republicans will be able or willing to drag the confirmation process out. Gaming this out, it doesn’t make much political sense for them to drag their feet too long, or too obviously, and it doesn’t make sense for them to force a cloture vote unless they’re sure that at least handful of their own members will vote with the Democrats. The GOP is hemorrhaging women and Hispanic supporters, and torpedoing a female, Hispanic Supreme Court nominee…well, let’s just say there are better things they could do to shore up support among those groups.

How long will it take, then? As I noted earlier, the Democrats have two recent benchmarks to point to: the two months it took the Senate to confirm Chief Justice John Roberts, and the three months it took to confirm Justice Samuel Alito, filibuster and all. Much longer than that, and it’ll be pretty clear that the Republicans are wasting everybody’s time.

But then again, Bill Clinton nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Court of Appeals in late June of 1997, and she wasn’t confirmed until early the following October, almost 16 months later–Republicans were worried at the time that she was being primed for placement on the Supreme Court, and, over a decade later, their fears have come to pass. So she, as much as anyone, understands that Republicans will go to great lengths to delay–even if they can’t successfully obstruct–nominees who they think pose a risk to conservatism.