Top of the Ticket

Political commentary from the LA Times

« Previous Post | Top of the Ticket Home | Next Post »

A short history of Senate Hart Building's Room 216, scene of Sotomayor hearings

July 12, 2009 | 10:02 pm

The Senate Judiciary Committee prepares for confirmation hearings of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to be on the Supreme Court  

Sonia Sotomayor will make history Monday in Room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building. In fact she'll be sitting at the desk above, looking at a phalanx of senators aligned in front of an imposing marble wall.

When the hearing begins at 10 a.m. EDT, the Bronx native is to be flanked by the two Democratic senators from New York -- Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. Then, after their introduction, the first Latino nominee to the Supreme Court is expected to  be left alone at the table to face the committee's questions.

This could be the biggest thing ever to happen in Hart 216.

Alexander Calder sculpture in the Senate Hart Office Building The Hart building has several distinctions. One is the Alexander Calder sculpture, called Mountains and Clouds, that graces its lobby. The focal point of the building's nine-story atrium, the Calder work -- installed just before the artist's death in 1976 -- is the largest and most modern sculpture ever commissioned by the Senate. Its clouds rotate above stationary mountains, and all of its black metal stands in stark contrast to the white marble walls.

Another of the building's distinctions is that the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan hated it. In fact, the New York senator, an architecture buff who helped launch a major revival of D.C.'s downtown quadrant, was so offended by the neo-modernist style of the building, as well as its price tag (topping $137 million), that in May 1981 he introduced  a tongue-in-cheek Sense of the Senate resolution that said:

Whereas in the fall of 1980 the frame of the new Senate Office Building was covered with plastic sheathing in order that construction might continue during winter months; and Whereas the plastic cover has now been removed revealing, as feared, a building whose banality is exceeded only by its expense; and Whereas even in a democracy there are things it is well the people do not know about their government: Now, therefore, be it resolved, That it is the sense of the Senate that the plastic cover be put back.

Thanks to Moynihan's bad review, the building was so controversial when it opened that few senior senators would risk moving in, leaving the roomier and more desirable offices to some of the Senate's more junior members, a rare treat. These days, space in the modern and roomy building is a prize.

Senate Hart 216, scene of Judge Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings The room where Sotomayor will face hearings has no skid marks from earlier scorched nominations, like the Russell Building's Caucus Room where committee members voted 9-5 to reject President Reagan's nomination for the Supreme Court, Judge Robert Bork. Bork's hearings serve as the great partisan divide in Senate Judiciary Committee history. Before Bork -- and the advent of televised hearings -- the committee often completed its work in one day. Afterward, nominations were accompanied by much lobbying and general frenzy.

But if it lacks the drama of historic showdowns, the scene of Sotomayor's confirmation hearings does offer some advantages. Hart 216 can accommodate 156 members of the media, not counting the television booths that peer down above the room. There are enough chairs for nearly 100 members of the administration and official witnesses. For this hearing, Judiciary Committee staffers say they have squeezed in an extra row of seats, meaning that at least 72 members of the public will be allowed inside.

And it's not like nothing has ever happened in Hart 216. Justice David H. Souter -- whose retirement sparked Sotomayor's nomination -- was confirmed there in 1990. And hearings to decide which military bases to close also happened there. As for Hart, then Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle received an anthrax-laced letter there in October 2001, just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, that prompted officials to evacuate parts of the building.

Still, if the walls could talk, they'd probably enjoy today's proceedings.

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo Credit: Johanna Neuman photo of Senate room; U.S. Senate of Calder sculpture.

The Ticket goes inside politics several times a day. Click here for Twitter alerts of each new item. Or follow us @latimestot