Lauer: Will Opposing First Hispanic Supreme Court Nominee 'Cost' GOP?

NBC's Matt Lauer, on Wednesday's "Today" show greeted viewers with the following teaser: "Good morning, Supreme showdown. Republicans gear up for a fight over President Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the nation's highest court," and then asked the racially loaded question: "But will taking on the first Hispanic nominee cost them down the road?" Lauer and other "Today" correspondents repeatedly questioned if Republican opposition to Sotomayor would cost them Hispanic votes in upcoming elections. However no one on "Today" mentioned it was Democrats, back in 2003, as the MRC's Tim Graham pointed out, who opposed the nomination, by Republican President George W. Bush of Miguel Estrada at the circuit court level.

After Lauer first brought up the question in the teaser NBC's Natalie Morales and Chuck Todd then discussed the political peril of the GOP opposing the first Hispanic Supreme Court nominee:

NATALIE MORALES: Right. And, and Chuck, if a Senate confirmation is likely, which it appears it will be, don't, don't Republicans have to be very careful and they walk a very fine line on how they push back on this nomination?

CHUCK TODD: Well, they do. And what you've got here when you think about what happened in 2008 and the Hispanic vote, went two-to-one Democrat. And Republicans don't want to see their vote against Sotomayor to be seen as somehow anti-Hispanic. Now there will be some conservatives who believe there is plenty of fodder out there in her judicial record to go against her and, and they're gonna have to make that case carefully. But what they're afraid of -- and you talk to Republicans privately -- what they're afraid of is that somehow criticism of her will look anti-Hispanic and that will only create bigger political problems down the road in 2010 and 2012, Natalie.

Then, later in a segment with Senators Jeff Sessions and Chuck Schumer, Lauer brought up the issue again with the ranking Republican senator on the Judiciary committee:

LAUER: Senator Sessions, what about this tight rope that some are saying the Republicans have to walk during these confirmation hearings that you, you want to, want to hold this nominee's feet to the fire, you don't want to be a rubber stamp for the President's nomination of, of, of Judge Sotomayor, but, on the other hand, this is the first Hispanic nominee to the nation's highest court. And, and do you run the risk of alienating a large group of voters at a time when the Republican Party can ill-afford to alienate anyone?

The following segments all occurred during the May 27 "Today" show:

NATALIE MORALES: And while President Obama's pick is drawing plenty of praise from Democrats, are Republicans gearing up for a fight? NBC's chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd is traveling with the President in Las Vegas. Chuck, good morning.

[On screen headline: "Supreme Choice, The Politics of Picking Sotomayor"]

CHUCK TODD: Good morning, Natalie.

MORALES: She certainly has had a storybook life, as the President talked about her extraordinary journey yesterday. But what sort of political calculation went into President Obama's choice in selecting Judge Sotomayor, and is he gearing up for a fight from Republicans?

TODD: Well, it's interesting. Look, when you look at Supreme Court picks, the most important day is rollout day. And for, as far as the White House is concerned, the rollout went spectacular. When you look and you compare it to John Roberts and how President Bush's White House rolled him out, it was a similar perfect performance. Democrats were caught off guard, they didn't know how to respond. Well yesterday a lot of Republicans truly were caught off guard. In many ways, Natalie, they practiced political restraint. You didn't hear many, outside of Rush Limbaugh and Mitt Romney, the 2008 presidential candidate, other than those two major figures, everybody else from the chairman of the Republican Party to the Senate Minority Leader, to key members on the Senate Judiciary committee, Republicans of all stripes, seem to really hold back. You did not see a lot of criticism. Sure, some interest groups seemed to criticize, but you didn't see much criticism there. And that tells you that this thing is probably on a fast track at this point. She would have to have a very bad actual hearing for this thing to get derailed.

MORALES: Right. And, and Chuck, if a Senate confirmation is likely, which it appears it will be, don't, don't Republicans have to be very careful and they walk a very fine line on how they push back on this nomination?

TODD: Well, they do. And what you've got here when you think about what happened in 2008 and the Hispanic vote, went two-to-one Democrat. And Republicans don't want to see their vote against Sotomayor to be seen as somehow anti-Hispanic. Now there will be some conservatives who believe there is plenty of fodder out there in her judicial record to go against her and, and they're gonna have to make that case carefully. But what they're afraid of -- and you talk to Republicans privately -- what they're afraid of is that somehow criticism of her will look anti-Hispanic and that will only create bigger political problems down the road in 2010 and 2012, Natalie.

MORALES: Alright Chuck Todd traveling with the President in Las Vegas. Thank you, Chuck. It is 7:07am. And for more now, here's Matt.

MATT LAUER: Alright Natalie, thank you. Two men on the Senate Judiciary committee, who will be instrumental in Sotomayor's confirmation process, are New York Senator Chuck Schumer, who wrote to President Obama in April urging him to appoint her if the opportunity presented itself, and the committee's ranking Republican senator, Jeff Sessions from Alabama. Senators, good morning to both of you.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: Good morning.

LAUER: Senator Sessions, let me start with you. In making this nomination yesterday, the President said that, "Walking in the door, she would bring more experience on the bench and more varied experience on the bench than anyone currently serving on the United States Supreme Court had when they were appointed." So in terms of pure resume, is she completely qualified to serve?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: She has a good resume. The kind of resume I like to see in a nominee. and that gives her a record that can be examined and we can see how well she's performed, whether she's been faithful to the law or not or whether she has a tendency to be aggressive from the bench and assert her own feelings and politics or empathies.

LAUER: Senator Schumer, a Supreme Court analyst for the conservative Cato Institute said, quote, "She is not the most qualified nominee. If she weren't Hispanic she wouldn't even have been on the short list." Is that a fair statement, is this about ethnicity or about qualifications?

SCHUMER: It's not fair at all. She is just top-notch legally. First her academic record. To graduate summa cum laude from Princeton, to graduate, on the Yale Law Review. Very hard to make and the selection is blind, you don't even know the name of the person you're selecting. And her record on the bench is outstanding. The judges in the second circuit, lawyers who have opposed her from the business side and others think she is a top-notch lawyer. That statement is unfair.

LAUER: Senator Sessions, I go back to something you said, quote, "We must determine if Miss Sotomayor understands that the proper role of a judge is to act as a neutral empire of the law." I assume you're specifically referring to what she said in 2005 on tape at Duke University where she said, "The Court of Appeals is where policy is made." Not laws are interpreted, policy is made. Is that a disqualifier in your opinion?

SESSIONS: Well, we need to inquire into that and give her a fair opportunity to explain it. But on its face that's very troubling. A judge must be, must submit themselves to the law and be faithful to the law and to serve under the law. They are not above the law. And I think it's further exacerbated by President Clinton's [sic] promise to find someone who will use empathy in making decisions. And I think that is a non-legal standard. And so the combination requires, I think those of us in the Senate, to give her an absolutely fair hearing which I intend to try to do as best I can. And to then to determine whether or not she will be faithful to the law, or whether she'll allow her personal or political views to influence her decision making.

LAUER: Senator Schumer, we have an expression in television, "caught on tape."

SCHUMER: Yes.

LAUER: Okay, those are her words caught on tape from 2005. "The Court of Appeals is where policy is made." I mean does that make her an activist judge, activist being a radioactive word in some quarters?

SCHUMER: Well, I'd say not at all. First you look at her record, she clearly puts rule of law first. Second, as is the policy, as is sort of characteristic of our politics these days, they left out the second line. She says, "I don't advocate that." In other words, she says, "Policy is, is made in the Court of Appeals, but I don't advocate that." And so once you hear the whole tape, I think the rug will be pulled out from under that argument.

LAUER: Senator Sessions, what about this tight rope that some are saying the Republicans have to walk during these confirmation hearings that you, you want to, want to hold this nominee's feet to the fire, you don't want to be a rubber stamp for the President's nomination of, of, of Judge Sotomayor, but, on the other hand, this is the first Hispanic nominee to the nation's highest court. And, and do you run the risk of alienating a large group of voters at a time when the Republican Party can ill-afford to alienate anyone?

SESSIONS: Well, certainly the Republican Party needs to broaden its tent and do those, the things that are good for outreach. But I just got to tell you, we have an absolute Constitutional duty to make sure that any nominee, no matter what their background and how, what kind of life story they had, that we examine that so the American people can know that the person we give a lifetime appointment to, we can't even dock their pay once they get in office, that, that person will be faithful to the law and not allow their personal views to influence decision making. This is a fundamental question of American law. It's been placed in the context over, a contest over a number of years. And I think it's time for us to re-affirm and hope this hearing will allow us to discuss that, to re-affirm the classic American values of the independent judge, blind justice, the kind of things that have made the legal system so fabulous in America.

LAUER: And I'll give you, go ahead.

SCHUMER: Matt, Jeff is entitled, they're entitled to a hearing. We'll allow them to ask all questions. I think when they look at her record, they're gonna support her. She's moderate, she's excellent. She is just the kind of judge we need in America.

LAUER: What's the vote on the committee, Senator?

SCHUMER: Oh I think the vote will be overwhelming. I do. Because you, the more you look at her record, the more you like her. And of course, her story brings a tear to your eye and makes me proud not only of her, but of being American.

LAUER: And we'll leave it on that note. Senators Chuck Schumer and Jeff Sessions. Senators, thanks to both of you.

SESSIONS: Thank you.

Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens is the Deputy Research Director at the Media Research Center.