Supreme Court Rope-a-Dope

I have to say, I’m enjoying not listening to the Sandra Sotomayor confirmation hearings. I suppose that’s a conundrum: How could I possibly know that not doing something is a feel-good experience? Well, the answer to that puzzler is that I have listened to short sections of the hearings. They’re unbearable. They’re the forensic equivalent of Muhammad Ali’s “rope-a-dope,” the tactic he improvised to tire out and eventually beat the bigger, stronger George Foreman in 1974.

Not to compare the hearings with that fight in any way. Ali’s method was brilliant and exciting. No one expected it, and it represented the supreme gamble that his wits and reflexes would allow him to survive long enough against the pure power of his opponent to eventually reset the odds in his favor.

What’s going on in Washington now bears no resemblance to that. The hearings are so predictable, so empty of substance, so free of risk. They have turned into a ritual in which the appointing president’s opponents windmill away at the nominees, desperate to score points even with the most trivial forays. The new court hopefuls, for their part, cover up, trying to avoid saying anything to any questioner that might give their foes advantage. Their audience learns they never prejudge anything. You wonder how they might answer a question about their favorite Ben & Jerry’s flavor or how they’d ever manage to select one while they’re shopping.

I liked this exchange yesterday between Sotomayor and Arlen Specter, Pennylvania’s new Democratic senator. Specter wanted to know what the nominee thinks about the Supreme Court taking on more cases. Sotomayor didn’t want to say “until I’ve experienced the process.” (Here’s the transcript.)

You can imagine what happened when Specter turned to the topic of the Bush administration’s Terrorist Surveillance Program and the court’s declining to hear an appeal on the program’s constitutionality. Specter reminded Sotomayor that he had written to her a number of times advising her he would ask her about this during the hearings. “I’m not asking you how you would decide the case,” he said, “but wouldn’t you agree that the Supreme Court should have taken that kind of a major conflict on separation of powers?”

Sotomayor wasn’t going to fall for a trap like that–offering an opinion on whether the issues in a case merited the court’s attention. Here she goes:

Sotomayor: I can understand not only Congress’s or your personal frustration, and sometimes the citizens when there are important issues that they would like the court to consider. The question becomes what do I do if you give me the honor to serve on the Court. If I say something today, is that going to make a statement about how I’m going to prejudge someone else’s…

Specter: I’m not asking you to prejudge. I’d like to know your standards for taking the case. If you have that kind of a monumental historic conflict and the court is supposed to decide conflicts between the executive and legislative branches, how can it possibly be justified not to take that case?

Sotomayor: There are often, from what I understand — and that’s from my review of Supreme Court actions and cases of situations in which they have or have not taken cases, and I’ve read some of their reasoning as to this. I know that with some important issues, they want to make sure that there isn’t a procedural bar to the case of some type that would take away from whether they’re, in fact, doing what they would want to do, which is to …

Specter: Well, was there a procedural bar? You’ve had weeks to mull that over, because I gave you notice.

Sotomayor: Senator, I’m sorry. I did mull this over. My problem is that, without looking at a particular issue and considering the cert briefs file, the discussion of potential colleagues as to the reasons why a particular issue should or should not be considered, the question about…

Specter: Well, I can tell you’re not going to answer. Let me move on.

The rope-a-dope routine at least shows Sotomayor knows how to survive. But to go back to the ring for a moment, the performance doesn’t call to mind the imagination and courage Ali used to conquer Foreman, but his tactics in another fight. A few years after the Foreman fight, an unprepared Ali lost his title to Leon Spinks. It was Spinks’s finest hour, and it was short-lived. He fought Ali again before the year was out, and this time Ali came with a game plan: to hit Spinks when he could, which was often enough, and hang onto him the rest of the fight. It was a tired, embarrassing display. But it worked, and Ali regained his crown, if only for a moment.

5 Comments

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5 Responses to Supreme Court Rope-a-Dope

  1. Rob

    I was at that second Ali-Spinks fight in the SuperDome. 1978, I believe. We had a great time.

  2. I remember watching that second Ali-Spinks fight at O’Doul’s off Union Square in San Francisco. Won some money that night.
    Sotomayor sure showed she could take whatever was handed out, mostly great gobs of hot air, repetition and condescension. I guess you can take thee days of that or a lifetime job. Her patience and ability to stay on message (even when the message was no message) was impressive.

  3. Eamon

    I’m sure Sotomayor is as intelligent and as able to do the job as any of the judges currently serving. But I still have a major issue with her (as a moderate Democrat who disagrees with most of what the Republicans say) being made a Supreme Judge. As soon as the idea that someone of one racial/gender group would hopefully make a better decision than someone of another group I think it should be automatic disqualification. Even if there are people on the bench who believe that already it should not be a reason to put another one up there. It’s insulting to the white males who have not had an easy life (and I would consider myself amongst the upper middle of this group but raised by parents who taught me that everyone is equal) and who are not racist or sexist, that it can be forgiven to make “slips of the tongue” (slipping your tongue on the same words multiple times is a mighty achievement mind you) in which you disparage another group as a whole. We all know that prejudices exist and most if not all of us harbor some if only small ones. But someone who doesn’t have the judgment to not make blanket statements should not be put on the Supreme Court.
    But then again, I suppose my experience isn’t rich enough to make such an important decision correctly…
    According to CNN:
    http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/06/05/sotomayor.speeches/
    “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would, more often than not, reach a better conclusion.”
    That sentence, or a similar one, has appeared in speeches Sotomayor delivered in 1994, 1999, 2002, 2004 and 2001. In that speech, she included the phrase “than a white male who hasn’t lived that life” at the end, which sparked cries of racism from some Republicans.

  4. Eamon

    Looking at my comment I realize it may be a little difficult to understand I was referring to myself as a moderate Democrat not to Sotomayor

  5. Dan — I’m with you: I’ve more or less avoided watching the hearings. Yahoo News and The Dallas Morning Snooze give me as much information as I feel like I need on this–especially since it sounds like her confirmation is a fore-gone conclusion.

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