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July 13th, 2009
10:33 AM ET

Prepping a Supreme Court nominee

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="Ed Gillespie played a key role on behalf of the Bush administration in the confirmation hearings of Justices Roberts and Alito."]

After weeks of meeting senators and preparing for tough questions, Sonia Sotomayor today begins the formal hearings on her nomination to become the nation's first Hispanic Supreme Court justice.

Ed Gillespie, former counselor to President George W. Bush, knows what it's like to shepherd a judicial nominee through the Senate. He played a key role on behalf of the Bush administration for the confirmation hearings of Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts. He spoke to Kiran Chetry on CNN’s “American Morning” Monday.

Kiran Chetry: You were there for the last two times a nominee was getting ready to sit in the hot seat – Justices Roberts and Alito. What goes on in the days and hours before these hearings get set to begin for the nominees?

Ed Gillespie: Well you sift through the information you glean from the visits, the one-on-one visits that the nominee had with the senators. You try to determine what are likely questions to come up in the hearing. And the nominee in this case, Judge Sotomayor, obviously, will have some pretty firm views in response to those questions. And you just help in terms of shaping body language and the contours of the response and help give the nominee some guidance as to what to expect from the committee process. You know, judges aren't accustomed to being judged. And that's the position that Judge Sotomayor will be in for the next couple of days.

Chetry: Many say one issue for Sotomayor that she's sure to be questioned about are those comments she made at UC Berkeley back in 2001 where she said I hope a "wise Latina woman with the richness her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." Senator Mitch McConnell said it's a “troubling philosophy for any judge – let alone one nominated to the highest court – to convert ‘empathy’ into favoritism for particular groups.” That's just a sampling of what she might get from some of the GOP senators. How does she best handle questions about that comment?

Gillespie: I think she has to make clear that any personal perspectives that she has articulated in the past in speeches haven't translated into rulings. I don't know that that’s the case. I think that's one of the things that would be weighed in the course of these hearings. She also said that your gender, your ethnicity – that you bring to bear what facts you choose to see. And I think people ask why would a judge choose to see some facts and not others? She'll be given the opportunity to respond to those questions. Those responses are important. This is a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court of the United States. You want people going before the Supreme Court regardless of their race or gender or ethnicity to have confidence that the rulings that will come and be issued and promulgated won't be based on that race, that gender, that ethnicity. And so these are important questions and I'm glad she'll have the opportunity in public to provide an answer.

Chetry: It's interesting because the same came up for Samuel Alito. I want to read something said during his confirmation hearings. He said, “When I get a case about discrimination, I have to think about people in my own family who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of their religion or gender, and I do take that into account. And Republicans voted him in, obviously, it was along party lines pretty much for Alito. Is this an example of how partisanship can sometimes get in the way? It's okay if somebody from your party or from your world view says it, but if somebody else does, they’re viewed as perhaps troublesome on the court.

Gillespie: First of all, that was in response to a question to Justice Alito. In the hearing he didn't have consistent statements. Judge Sotomayor said seven times in seven different instances, made a statement that her gender and her ethnicity make her better qualified to render a ruling…

Chetry: Right, but the sentiment was still the same. He said he does take into account ethnic background, religion and gender and whether or not anyone suffered discrimination.

Gillespie: And his record on the bench, when you looked at his record on the bench it was clear he applied the law as written. I think she'll have to have the opportunity today to make clear she applies the law as written – doesn't make policy from the bench as she said was the appropriate role of the Circuit Court of Appeals. By the way, 40 out of 44 Democrats in the Senate voted against Justice Alito on his confirmation, which is a pretty strong, you know, demarcation, I think, in terms of the traditional view of a nominee. They didn't argue that he wasn't qualified in terms of his experience, his intellect, or the merits of his rulings. They argued they were going to vote against him and some even filibustered him because they disagreed with how they thought he might rule in the future. That's one of the questions Republicans will face today.

Chetry: One of the "no" votes was then-Senator Obama. So it's interesting how things change in the course of just a few years.

Gillespie: One of the people calling for a filibuster, indeed actually. He actually called for a filibuster.

Chetry: I want to ask you about this because we're in a totally different time and place, I guess, when you look at the makeup of this. Democrats have 60 senators and they only need the simple majority. It pretty much is a done deal for the most part, right? If you are a Republican senator, what is your job today?

Gillespie: I think the Republicans have made clear they are not going to filibuster the nominee. I think their job is to try to discern what kind of a justice Judge Sotomayor would be in this lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court and what would the impact of that be on jurisprudence in the future of our country. It's a very important job and whether or not you are able to – I suspect, by the way, Kiran, many Republicans may end up voting for Judge Sotomayor. I don't think anyone has made a determination at this point one way or another how they are going to vote. And I think that's appropriate. They should listen to the questions in the hearings and the judge's responses, be thoughtful about it, respectful in the process. And I think that's what you'll see.

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