Next month, Congress will begin confirmation hearings to decide the fate of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, the 55-year-old Bronx native whom President Barack Obama nominated last month to fill retiring Justice David Souter's spot on the nine-member bench.
Observers such as Paul Kane of the Washington Post have said that when it comes time for a decision, Maine Republican senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe could be "key votes that could make the entire confirmation fight much less dramatic than some of the epic confirmation fights of the past 25 years."
Both senators had private meetings with Sotomayor — a Latina judge who has been labeled a moderate (lending herself to some comparisons with Snowe and Collins) — in early June. When former president Bill Clinton nominated Sotomayor to a federal appeals court in 1998, Maine's senators were among the group of seven Republicans (also including New Hampshire senator Judd Gregg) that joined Dems in giving her the thumbs-up.
For now, Snowe and Collins are staying relatively mum about whether they'll offer a repeat performance when it comes to sending Sotomayor to the highest judicial bench in the country. Neither is likely to offer her formal support before the confirmation process is complete.
However, there are positive indications. Snowe, whom White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel called personally on the morning of May 26, when Sotomayor was appointed, co-authored a letter on May 11 encouraging Obama to appoint a woman to the vacant seat. The 45-minute June 3 meeting with Snowe was one of Sotomayor's first stops on her senator-wooing tour of Capitol Hill.
"During our meeting, we discussed her judicial philosophy and view of constitutional interpretation — how she approaches each case, the factors she considers in weighing close issues of law and fact, and how she addresses challenges to legal precedent," Snowe said in a statement, before offering a small taste of her own judicial philosophy: "Indeed, a Supreme Court Justice, unlike a circuit judge, is not bound to automatically follow existing precedent, but can vote to alter or overturn it. As I told Judge Sotomayor, throughout this confirmation process I will apply the same standards to her as I have to previous nominees — reviewing thoroughly her reputation for intelligence, professional integrity and judicial temperament, and examining her extensive written opinions and other publications."
Collins's statement following their June 4 meeting was slightly more cagey, highlighting some of the senators' reservations (shared by many conservatives).
"During our meeting, I was able to ask Judge Sotomayor a broad range of questions. Much of our discussion focused on a speech that she delivered in 2001 in which she says she 'would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.'"
Collins said the remark "troubled" her. Other critics have said those words (uttered when Sotomayor, then an appellate judge, was giving a guest lecture at a California law school), shows Sotomayor's support for affirmative action, and indicate that her personal experiences will shape her decisions on the bench. Some have even labeled it "reverse racism."