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Klobuchar's Contribution: Talking Law With Sotomayor

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John Nichols
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07/15/2009 @ 12:49pm

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar brought something rare and valuable to the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor: a savvy questioning style that invited the nominee to offer extended and revealing answers regarding her views on the law.

That's what should happen at judicial confirmation hearings. But it rarely does -- and it might not have at Judge Sotomayor's session, had it not been for Klobuchar.

The senior senator from Minnesota got the judge talking, at length, about the extent to which the legal system can address broader societal ills, about the burden of sentencing guidelines that limit the options of judges, about the stark questions that arise when a prosecutor realizes a defendant is innocent and even about Perry Mason -- don't laugh, he popularized the law as a profession to which working-class kids from the Bronx and Plymouth, Minnesota, might aspire.

"I was influenced so greatly by a television show in igniting the passion that I had as being a prosecutor, and it was 'Perry Mason'," Judge Sotomayor acknowledged in response to a question from Klobuchar, adding a human note to the routine give-and-take of the past several days.

The nominee was not just throwing off a pop-culture reference.

Judge Sotomayor, a former Manhattan prosecutor, was making a serious point about the law:

   For the young people behind all of you, they may not even know who Perry Mason was, but Perry Mason was one of the first lawyers portrayed on television. And his storyline is that, in all of the cases he tried -- except one -- he -- he proved his client innocent and got the actual murderer to confess.

   In one of the episodes, at the end of the episode, Perry Mason and the character who played the prosecutor in the case were meeting up after the case. And Perry said to the prosecutor, "It must cause you some pain having expended all that effort in your case to have the charges dismissed." And the prosecutor looked up and, "No, my job as a prosecutor is to do justice, and justice is served when a guilty man is convicted and when an innocent man is not." And I thought to myself, that's quite amazing to be able to serve that role, to be given a job, as I was by (New York County District Attorney Robert) Morgenthau, a job I'm eternally grateful to him for, in which I could do what justice required in an individual case.

Thus began an extended rumination on the purposes of prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges by a Supreme Court nominee whose work on the bench will involve defining the roles of these key players in our legal system.

Judge Sotomayor spoke freely and extensively in her exchanges with Klobuchar, and the senator encouraged her to do so by actually listening as the nominee spoke.

For the most part, the exchanges between Judiciary Committee members and Judge Sotomayor this week have been political exercises. Democrats tossed softballs to the nominee of a Democratic president. Republicans threw hardballs. The nominee hit most of them in routine fashion -- no strikes but not many home runs.

As such, the only real news out of the first few days of the confirmation hearing was made by those Republicans -- particularly Utah's Orrin Hatch and South Carolina's Lindsey Graham -- who seemed to be preparing arguments for joining Democrats in voting to approve the nomination of a woman who now seems all but certain to join the high court.

The political positioning is important. But, as this is the last time that Judge Sotomayor is likely to be questioned by members of the Judiciary Committee -- unless she is nominated to serve as chief justice of the high court -- the questioning from Democrats and Republicans has generally been disappointing. It has tended toward the recitation of talking points regarding abortion, affirmative action and gun control rather than real efforts to get a sense of Sotomayor's legal and judicial philosophy.

That's why Klobuchar's contribution to the session was so significant.

Minnesota's senior senator may never get as much attention as her homestate colleague and fellow Judiciary Committee member, Al Franken.

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John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Online Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress.

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