In the summer of 1986, Congress found itself in the grip of confirmation hearings for a new Chief Justice and a new Associate Justice for the Supreme Court of the United States. Warren Burger had retired to (ostensibly) serve as chair of the Constitutional Bicentennial Commission; Justice Rehnquist was nominated to move to Chief and Antonin Scalia to take the junior-most position on the Court.

I watched those hearings with much interest, not knowing at the time that later that year I would become one of the Court’s newest hires. I would assume the role of Staff Counsel shortly after Chief Justice Rehnquist took on his new position.

In times like these, I’m often asked about the confirmation process and what I remember of those “battles” in the mid-80s and about the atmosphere in the building (“Was it abuzz? Was it the only topic of conversation?”). During my three-plus-year tenure in the Staff Counsel role, I witnessed two additional battles – calling them “hearings” is a misnomer – that of Robert Bork (unsuccessful) and of Anthony Kennedy (successful). If I remember correctly, Douglas Ginsberg (poor guy) never made it to the hearing stage. Anthony Kennedy is sworn in as a Justice of the United States Supreme Court on February 18, 1988. Chief Justice William Rehnquist administers the oath and Kennedy's wife Mary holds the family Bible as President Reagan looks on.
Of course the justices never said anything about the hearings or the nominee; even Justice O’Connor, who often rode to work with me because we lived near one another, was mum on the topic. The closest I ever got to a statement about the hearings was a comment on Bork’s notoriously scraggly beard. The court staff, exhibiting its historically insular nature, was similarly quiet. No one wanted to be on record commenting about a potential new boss, or probably more accurately, you simply did not discuss those matters at work.
Judge Robert Bork
Law clerks were another matter entirely and the regular Thursday evening casual get-togethers were often filled with analysis and opinions when a nominee was being vetted. I also attended an anti-Bork rally – solely to observe – and stayed out of sight in the back for fear of being seen or worse appearing on the news, a potential employment-ending event I'm sure. (The button I snagged at the event remains one of my favorite political mementos, however.)

Since my years there, the Court has almost completely transformed. Judge Sotomayor’s hearings are the ninth confirmation event since my time there and I have been caught up in the drama and pathos of each one. Here are a few things I’ll be looking for during the hearings:

  • Will anyone ask questions about any of the thousands of decisions she has authored or is this all about speeches, personal matters and grandstanding?
  • How she will explain the statements that are currently all over the mainstream media?
  • What role, if any, will her ethnicity and gender play in the hearings?
  • Will any of the senators discuss her diabetes and other potential health issues?
  • How will the Committee function without the normally verbose Joe Biden?
  • I just want to watch Arlen Specter. From top dog to lowest-ranking democrat, there has got to be something of interest there.
  • Sen. Sessions was passed over for the Federal Bench in 1986, in part for being “racially insensitive.” Will this shape his questions? Will we be able to tell?
  • What will be the most asinine line of questions and the easiest lot?

I’m ready for this bit of political theater and suggest you soak it in as well. We could see a couple more opportunities in the next few years, but who knows? I say don’t miss the chance.

It seems, if you believe the pundits, that Judge Sotomayor may soon be Justice Sotomayor. No one can predict what kind of Justice she will be and those who try may be surprised (see: Blackmun, Stevens, Souter et al). One thing is certain if she is confirmed: she will be assuming one of the most select and revered positions in our nation. I wish her Godspeed.

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