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Sotomayor hearings: Grassley says the 'empathy standard is troubling'

July 13, 2009 |  8:31 am

Grassley Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) welcomed Sonia Sotomayor and hit some notes that are sure to become a big part of the soundtrack of these hearings — her ability to set aside her personal feelings, or empathy, and be impartial.

He congratulated her and briefly reviewed her biography:  from humble beginnings, she overcame  obstacles, attended Princeton and Yale, got some impressive jobs and finally ended up where she is today -- in the world’s hottest seat.

But that, Grassley said, is not enough.

“We want to be absolutely certain the nominee will faithfully interpret the law and the Constitution without bias or prejudices … the capacity to set aside one’s own feelings so he or she can blindly and dispassionately” mete out justice for all.

“Some see the Supreme Court as ground zero for their political battles,” said Grassley, but that “is not what our great American tradition envisions. Those battles are more appropriately fought in the legislative branch.”

What Grassley hit again and again at the idea that a Supreme Court justice must not be swayed by personal agendas or feelings, and uttered the phrase that is going to be a weapon in the hands of Republicans:  “The empathy standard.” This echoes President Obama’s vow that one of the qualities he seeks in a Supreme Court justice is the ability to understand the daily struggles of Americans.

“This empathy standard is troubling to me,” Grassley said. “The Constitution requires that judges be free from personal politics … feelings and preferences.”

He raised Sotomayor’s now-famous line in a speech -- “your ‘wise Latina’ comment” -- as something that gives him pause and something that he will be exploring when he questions her later.

Grassley invoked the image of Lady Justice, who holds the scales while wearing a blindfold. “I will be asking you about your ability to wear that judicial blindfold,” Grassley said. “Whether  you allow biases and personal preferences to dictate your judicial manner.”

“You are nominated to a lifetime position on the highest court,” Grassley said. “The Senate has a tremendous responsibility to confirm … an individual who truly understand the proper role of a justice.”

-- Robin Abcarian

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Photo: Republican Sen. Charles Grassley speaks on Capitol Hill. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press