Nothing quite invigorates Washington, DC, like a Supreme Court fight. In selecting District Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor to replace David Souter, President Obama has given the city exactly what it's looking for.
Sure, everyone says that policy is important. But, in truth, it's politics and character assassination that really get the city's juices flowing. Historically, some of the most interesting appointment fights have been over the Supreme Court:. Heck, it was a court fight that even coined a political slang term for defeating a nomination (by arguably unfair means) -- "borking," which arose from the Robert Bork 1987 confirmation battle.
After Bork, liberals battered Clarence Thomas four years later -- including the brutal Anita Hill/sexual harassment part of the hearings. The effects of that confirmation process are still felt today.
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Strategically though, Sotomayor would also become the first Hispanic (well, real Hispanic anyway -- since Benjamin Cardozo apparently doesn't count in the modern context) named to the High Court. Both the conservative and liberal movements have, for years, been trying to get a "qualified" -- in the view of their respective bases -- Latino in line for an opening on the court.
In 2001, George W. Bush nominated Miguel Estrada to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. That was a time when the Democrats still controlled the Senate. When Republicans got back control of the Senate in 2003, they tried to bring Estrada up for a vote, only to have the Democrats bottle up the nomination. Finally, after languishing in nomination limbo for years, Estrada withdrew his name. Later discovered memos revealed that Democrats were seriously worried that if Estrada made it to the circuit court (where Sotomayor is now), he would be on the fast-track for the Supreme Court (much as Clarence Thomas was in 1991). The memos admitted, "The [Democratic base] wants to hold Estrada off as long as possible.”
Now, that moment has come. Both sides are marshaling their forces -- and with good reason. Unlike the presidency or a senate seat, partisans have only one shot at a Supreme Court justice: either the pick gets beaten back (a relatively rare occurrence) or the country -- and the opponents -- are stuck with that individual for decades.
Sure, there will actually be future fights more brutal than this one. Replacing liberal Souter with liberal Sotomayor won't upset the court's ideological balance the way Obama replacing a retiring William Kennedy, Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas would. That will be a life-and-death struggle.
Be that as it may, the battle over Sotomayor will still be an important for two main reasons: 1) Conservative activists can use the contest as a rallying point with which to raise important funds, thus getting themselves in place for the aforementioned future fights; 2) By examining Sotomayor's record -- especially on the controversial affirmative action case in New Haven -- Republicans can demonstrate that President Obama may not be as moderate as his rhetoric would suggest.
Let the games begin.
Robert A. George is a New York writer. He blogs at Ragged Thots.