Framing the Sotomayor Debate

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Framing the Sotomayor Debate

Elisabeth Garber-Paul

President Obama has made a Supreme Court pick that couldn't be more different from Harriet Miers -- a candidate with such a strong judicial record and empathetic stance that it's been hard for many in the Right to establish a coherent argument in her opposition.

It’s hard to believe that the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers was only four years ago. With little judicial experience, it was simple for both sides of the aisle to pick apart George W.’s nomination. However, President Obama seems to have done the opposite—find a candidate with such a strong judicial record and empathetic stance that it’s been hard for many in the Right to establish a coherent argument in her opposition.

"No one expected President Barack Obama to win over religious or cultural conservatives with his choice for the Supreme Court," Laura Dean wrote today on her Huffington Post blog. "But in the hours that followed the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor for the bench, he has received what could be the next best thing. Social conservative organizations, which have proven to be vastly influential players in Court battles over the last eight years, are largely holding their tongues. Some have even offered cautious praise for the pick."

Moreover, socially liberal organizations are taking a cue from George Lakoff, acting quickly to "frame" the debate in their favor. An ad from the Coalition for Constitutional Values features audio clips of Obama describing his ideal candidate, along with biographical facts about his nominee. Before they allow conservatives to latch on to a negative soundbite, this group is reportedly putting six figures behind the ad in order to shape the debate in a positive light.

But Republicans are launching their own attacks, though their arguments are easily dismantled. First, some claim that she is an "activist judge," based on her belief that experience affects perception (an obvious fact—is there a sound way to deny that?) and a statement that "the court of appeals is where policy is made," which could be interpreted as an observation rather than a value.

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Rush Limbaugh was quick to call her a "reverse racist" because her the ruling in the Ricci v. DeStefan case currently facing the Supreme Court. However, as David Axelrod, senior adviser to the president, pointed out on MSNBC, it was her belief in upholding the law, not legislating from the bench, that brought her to that conclusion.

"I don’t know exactly what his legal expertise is," Mr. Axelrod said, according to the New York Times. "But if he had it, what he would know is that she ruled in that case on the law. In fact, the decision was rendered in keeping with the precedent of the Second Circuit. And in the brief opinion, the panel ruled—the panel said they had felt solicitude for the firefighters but they were bound by the precedent in the circuit."

Of course there will be those opposed to Sonia Sotomayer, but her record speaks for itself. She is hardworking, conscious of the pratfalls of objectivity, and willing to admit that many laws are shaped in the courtroom. And as long as Democrats are cognizant of the manner in which these facts are presented, socially conservative groups will have no ground left to stand on.