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Sotomayor hearings: Leahy plays defense out of the box

July 14, 2009 |  6:57 am

Leahy Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has begun his round of questions. Each member of the panel will have 30 minutes today, alternating by party.

Leahy initially has focused on Sotomayor's judicial record -- giving the nominee plenty of opportunity to spell out her philosophy and to describe herself as impartial and deferential to precedent. "It's important to remember that, as a job, I don't make law," Sotomayor said.

He's also focusing on her most famous case as a prosecutor, the "Tarzan burglar." While Sotomayor was an assistant district attorney in Manhattan in the early 1980s, she prosecuted a man, Richard Maddicks, who used ropes to swing into apartment windows to rob and terrorize the inhabitants.

Leahy's inquiry has allowed Sotomayor to detail a significant prosecutorial accomplishment: She strung a series of incidents together and persuaded the trial judge to let her try Maddicks on a number of crimes in one case. Maddicks was sentenced to more than 65 years in prison.

Here is the L.A. Times link to a story about her time in the prosecutor's office.

He also has given her a chance to explain her ruling in the Ricci vs. New Haven case, the firefighter lawsuit, and focus on the fact that Sotomayor says she followed precedent in the case, later reversed by the Supreme Court.

The court in that case "fashioned a new standard," Sotomayor said.

Leahy is, in essence, playing defense before the offense, to be personified first by ranking member Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), can take the field. By casting Sotomayor as a tough-on-crime prosecutor and impartial judge, he's hoping to take the air out of Sessions' inevitable accusations that Sotomayor is a biased, liberal judge who favors disadvantaged minority groups.

Or you might want to consider it direct examination, with Sessions taking the cross. You have to build the witness up before the attempted tearing-down.

It's expected to be a long day here in Hart 216, with senators expected to question Sotomayor late into the day.

-- James Oliphant

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Photo: Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, right, with the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press