Klobuchar, Sotomayor discuss illegal searches, Perry Mason and mothers

Judge Sonia Sotomayor
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor answers questions during the third day of her U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sen. Amy Klobuchar asked her first round of questions in Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing today in a 20-minute conversation with the 2nd Circuit judge that touched on everything from search and seizures to Perry Mason to both women’s mothers.

Klobuchar, who is a former attorney, opened her comments with praise for Sotomayor’s mother, Celina, who raised Sotomayor and has been watching the hours-long hearings from the front row.

“Everyone has been focusing on you sitting there. [But] I’ve been focusing on how patient your mother has been through this whole thing,” Klobuchar said. “Because I ran into her in the restroom just now, and I can tell you, she has a lot she’d like to say.”

After the laughter had subsided, Klobuchar continued, noting that her own mother had been anticipating her round of questioning with much less patience, leaving multiple messages on her phone.

“My favorite one, the recent one was, ‘I watched Senator Feinstein, and she was brilliant. What are you going to do?’” Klobuchar said.

Congenial questions

Klobuchar, then turned to the apparent business at hand: helping Sotomayor to straighten the record on certain points of Republican criticism, including her decisions on the Second Amendment and the “wise Latina” comment.

“We’ve heard so much about your speech in which you used the phrase, ‘wise Latina,’ and I’m not going to go over that again,” Klobuchar said. “But I did want to note, for the record, that you made a similar comment in another speech that you gave back in 1994, which you have provided not only in this proceeding but you also provided it when you came before the Senate for confirmation to the Circuit Court in 1997 and 1998. And no senator at that time — do you remember them asking you about it or making any issue about it at the time?”

“No,” Sotomayor said.

Next, Klobuchar turned to Sotomayor’s work as a criminal prosecutor, in a congenial set of questions that focused on how her experiences before becoming a judge might have shaped her view of the law, allowing her to see it through a more “pragmatic” lens.

“Do you want to talk about any — maybe a specific example of that in your own career as a prosecutor or what goes into your thinking on charging?” Klobuchar asked. 

But Sotomayor did not focus, at first, on her own career. Instead, she chose the scripted adventures of TV lawyer Perry Mason.

“I was influenced so greatly by a television show in igniting the passion that I had as being a prosecutor, and it was ‘Perry Mason,’” Sotomayor said.

Sotomayor went on to describe one of the episodes in which Mason tells the prosecutor:  “It must have caused you some pain having expended all that effort in your case to have the charges dismissed.”

“And the prosecutor looked up and [said], ‘No, my job as a prosecutor is to do justice, and justice is served when a guilty man is convicted and when an innocent man is not,’” Sotomayor said. “And I thought to myself, that’s quite amazing to be able to serve that role, to be given a job… in which I could do what justice required in an individual case.”

Klobuchar continued along the same vein.

“I want take that pragmatic experience that you’ve had, not just as a civil litigator, but also as a prosecutor, a lot has been said about whether judges’ biases or their gender or their race should enter into decision-making,” Klobuchar said. “And, I actually thought that Senator [Chuck] Schumer [D-N.Y.] did a good job of asking you questions where, in fact, you might have been sympathetic to a particular victim or to a particular plaintiff, but you ruled against them.”

Klobuchar mentioned an airline case involving TWA case in which Sotomayor dissented when the appeals court ruled that the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island occurred in U.S. territorial waters. Based on the ruling, victims’ families were allowed to sue TWA and Boeing along with other parts manufacturers. Sotomayor argued that the damages should have been limited based on a different interpretation of the law.

“It actually gave me some answers to give to this baggage carrier that came up to me at the airport in Minneapolis,” Klobuchar said. “It was about a month ago, after you had just been announced, and he came up and he said, ‘Are you going to vote for that woman?’

“And at first, I didn’t even know what he was talking about,” Klobuchar continued. “I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Are you going to vote for that woman?’ And I said, ‘Well, I think so, but I want to ask her some questions.’ And he said, ‘Well, aren’t you worried that her emotions get in front of the law?’

“And I thought if anyone heard what the cases — the TWA case, where you decided against — had to make a decision from some very sympathetic victims, the families of people who had been killed in a plane crash, and a host of other cases where you put the law in front of where your sympathies lie, I think that would have been a very good answer to him.”

Search and seizure cases

Sotomayor went on to describe her decisions in two cases involving search and seizures. In both cases, Sotomayor found that the evidence could stand even though warrants were in some way compromised or flawed because it was not the fault of the police force handling the case. In one case, involving child pornography found on a computer, Sotomayor said she determined that the search violated the U.S. Constitution but that the evidence could be admitted because the improper search had been the result of a judge’s error. In the other case, involving cocaine, Sotomayor found that the evidence could be used in court because the error with the warrant had been due to a clerical mistake.

“A judge’s job, whether it’s on the trial level, the circuit court, or even the Supreme Court, is not to create hypothetical cases and answer the hypothetical case. It’s to answer the case that exists,” Sotomayor said in response to a question about her focus on the facts of each case. “And so in my — my view — and I’m not suggesting any justice does this or doesn’t do it — but I do think that my work as a state prosecutor and a trial judge sensitizes me to understanding and approaching cases starting from the facts and then applying the law to those facts as they exist.”

Klobuchar then prompted Sotomayor to talk about her views on white-collar crime, noting that she had found those difficult as a prosecutor in Minnesota.

Klobuchar highlighted that Sotomayor was twice as likely as her colleagues to send white-collar criminals to two years or more in prison.

Sotomayor responded that, at that time, the guidelines did not take into account the number of victims of a white-collar crime and that “perhaps because of my prosecutorial background, perhaps because I considered the perspective of prosecutors who came before me… those are factors that one should consider.”

As varied as their conversation had been, it was not surprising when Klobuchar finally turned to baseball to sum up her comments.

Sotomayor, who is a Yankee fan, acknowledged that she had briefly watched the All-Star game last night.  Klobuchar pointed out that Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter had scored the game-tying run. The Minnesota Democrat and Twins fan, however, made sure to add that it was Minnesota’s Joe Mauer who got him there.

This prompted Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont to retort, “I’m resisting any Red Sox comments.”


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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Josh James on 07/15/2009 - 08:19 pm.

    pretty sure Klobuchar is still an attorney.

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