July 29, 2009

Playing Politics with the Supreme Court

A number of Democrats and political pundits are praising Senator Lindsey Graham for putting principles before politics by voting in favor of Judge Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court while scolding the rest of the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee for allowing political considerations to sway their vote. An LA Times editorial called Senator Graham's decision "a profile in statesmanship, if not courage."

If only it were that simple.

Unfortunately, the mere fact that a person votes a certain way says little about the motivation behind the vote. Senator Graham obviously believes that senators should show complete deference to a president in voting for a Supreme Court nominee, as long as the nominee meets the necessary qualifications for the position, and thus his vote in favor of Sotomayor adheres to principle. However, the fact that Graham voted one way based on principle doesn't necessarily mean his Republican colleagues allowed political pressures to trump principles in casting their vote. To draw this conclusion, Sotomayor supporters must assume that all Republicans agree that Graham's deference standard should override any other considerations. Clearly this is not the case.

Democrats have been quick to spin the situation by flat out dismissing Republican senators' appeal to judicial philosophy and other matters when voting against Sotomayor's nomination. In the LA Times editorial quoted above, the author had this to say:

However much they cloaked their opposition in high-minded arguments about judicial philosophy and Sotomayor's supposedly radical views, the other six Republicans on the 19-member committee were voting their party affiliation and political philosophy. The subtext was as obvious as it was crude: Republican and conservative good, Democrat and liberal bad.

This cynical interpretation of the vote disregards the very real possibility that these senator's had legitimate concerns about Sotomayor without offering a shred of evidence to justify doing so. In fact, based on the electoral threat many of these men face from the potential Hispanic backlash, it appears that the Republicans voted against Sotomayor in spite of the political consequences they may suffer. Even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recognizes the risk a vote in opposition to the first Hispanic nominee entails:

"I just think that their voting against this good woman is going to treat them about the same way that they got treated as a result of their votes on immigration," Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority leader, said of Republicans. He was referring to the electoral losses — including among Hispanic voters, a fast-growing segment of the electorate — the GOP suffered after its spirited opposition to measures that would have given some illegal immigrants a chance to gain legal status.

Based on this observation, it is difficult to conclude that politics was on the forefront of the minds of Republicans on the Committee when they cast their vote. If they had been worried about losing elections, they would more likely have caved under the threat of alienating a key segment of the electorate, as Reid suggests, and endorsed Sotomayor's nomination. Instead, Republican Senators chose to promote principle - specifically their opposition to judicial activism - over identity politics.