Supreme Court confirmation hearings seek, in theory at least, to determine what sort of justice the nominee would be. But in practice they show something else: what sort of lawyer the nominee is.
In large part, hearings are showcases for the egos of United States Senators. Sessions tried to be a kind yet tough inquisitor who would reveal Judge Sotomayor's underlying liberalism; Graham tried to show how considerate and wise he could be; Kyl tried to show how good a lawyer he is.
“I’m a pretty good litigator,” Judge Sonia Sotomayor said on Tuesday, before reminding herself that she left that role behind 17 years ago when she joined the federal bench. “Or I was,” she said, “a really good litigator.”
She was suggesting that she might be able to persuade the other justices, should she be confirmed, to think about allowing cameras into the Supreme Court. But she might as well have been describing her own role on Tuesday, arguing the most important case of her life before a panel of senators prepared to judge her fitness for appointment to the nation’s highest court.
What I saw, in snippets from PBS News and an extended look at CSPAN coverage (commercial news networks don't show any more than snippets seconds long, which are nearly worthless and can be quite misleading), was an intelligent nominee who smiled and show deference as needed, refused to get bogged down in detail, and did quite well.
She was questioned most closely on her rulings concerning the Second Amendment and race discrimination. Judge Sotomayor used a litigator’s skills in presenting her responses.
She first established that she was in complete command of the facts, reciting them in detail and length. Then she argued that her rulings were required by settled precedents. She sometimes pointed to later decisions from other appeals courts that had arrived at the same conclusion. But she avoided addressing points that might have opened a wider discussion of the wisdom of her rulings.