WASHINGTON - It wasn't "The Case of the Deadly Verdict," but Wednesday's Judiciary Committee hearing on Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor included a pop-culture look at Perry Mason under friendly questioning from Minnesota's two Democratic senators.
On a day when Sotomayor was pressed by both sides on abortion and a host of other wedge issues, the 1960s TV courtroom drama served as a parable for Sotomayor's view of justice and the role of judges and prosecutors in society.
Win or lose, Sotomayor told Sen. Amy Klobuchar, "We are all implementing the protections of the Constitution."
Sen. Al Franken, picking up the thread in his round of questions, remarked that Mason, the fictional defense attorney who almost always won, seemed an odd inspiration for a woman who started her career as a prosecutor.
"It says something about your determination to defy the odds," Franken said.
In an interview after the hearing, Franken told the Star Tribune that he will vote to support Sotomayor's confirmation. "Her record is unassailable," he said.
However light the mood in the hearing room, Klobuchar and Franken helped lay the groundwork for the Democratic narrative of Sotomayor as a tough-minded judge who hews to the law, as opposed to the Republican portrait of an activist judge bent on using the courts to change society.
But first came the jokes, an area where Klobuchar ceded nothing to Franken, a former "Saturday Night Live" star.
Mothers and daughters
Opening her round of questions, Klobuchar immediately focused on Sotomayor's mother, Celina, who has sat through three days of hearings.
"Everyone's been focusing on you," Klobuchar told Sotomayor, a U.S. Appeals Court judge who could become the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice. "I've been focusing on how patient your mother has been through this whole thing."
With that, Klobuchar -- one of only two women on the panel -- and Sotomayor -- only the third woman to come before the panel as a Supreme Court nominee -- exchanged some friendly chatter that stood in stark contrast to aggressive questioning from Alabama's Jeff Sessions and other top Republicans on the committee who have tried to attack the nominee's social views.
"I ran in to her [Celina Sotomayor] in the restroom just now," Klobuchar told the judge, "and I can tell you, she has a lot she'd like to say. She has plenty of stories that she would like to share about you."
"Senator, don't give her the chance," Sotomayor interjected, laughing.
"She is more patient than my mother has been, who has been waiting for this moment, for me to ask these questions," said Klobuchar, in her first Supreme Court confirmation hearing. "She's been leaving messages like 'How long do these guys have to go on?'"
Bumping up against the noon lunch break and a broken air conditioner, most of the "guys" on the committee had by then left the room. Klobuchar returned to a message from her mother that referred to California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, the only other woman on the committee:
"I watched Senator Feinstein, and she was brilliant," Klobuchar said, quoting her mom, retired school teacher Rose Klobuchar. "What are you going to do?"
"We should introduce our mothers," Sotomayor said.
Of activism and privacy
The substantive side of Klobuchar's questions -- the first of two scheduled rounds -- permitted Sotomayor to rebut a line of GOP attacks suggesting that she has been evasive in the hearings about her personal values and how they would color her work as a Supreme Court justice.
"It's muddled, confusing backtracking on issue after issue," Sessions told reporters during a morning break.
On issues such as abortion and gun rights, said Texas Republican John Cornyn, Sotomayor had been far less than forthcoming. "I just wonder what's really going on here," he said.
Democrats, meanwhile, praised Sotomayor's careful and measured performance.
"Nobody's laid a glove on her," said Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse.
Klobuchar, a former Hennepin County attorney, asked Sotomayor about a few of her criminal search-warrant rulings, including a child porn case and a drug case where she had sided with police.
She quickly disposed of Sotomayor's oft-quoted "wise Latina" remark, noting that it had never come up in her previous confirmation hearings as a judge for the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in New York.
As for the conservative charge that liberals use the courts to change society, Klobuchar elicited this response from Sotomayor: "We cannot remedy the ills of society in the courtroom. We can only apply the law to the facts."
Talking ex-prosecutor to ex-prosecutor, Klobuchar and Sotomayor discussed the challenges of jailing well-connected white-collar criminals, an area where Sotomayor developed a reputation for toughness on the bench.
"Crime is crime," Sotomayor said.
Franken's first big gig
Franken, going last as the panel's most junior-ranking member, pulled out a pocket Constitution and tried to draw out Sotomayor on subjects as varied as Internet regulations, age discrimination, voting rights and abortion.
He also took a swing at the conservative critique of judicial activism, which he called "a code word for judges you don't agree with."
As she did with previous senators, Sotomayor generally restricted herself to guarded answers emphasizing the limits of judges in interpreting laws established by Congress and applying them to the facts of each case.
Mounting a rebuttal to conservatives' attacks on abortion, Franken asked whether it matters that the word "privacy" doesn't explicitly appear in the Constitution, even though the concept undergirds the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision protecting women's abortion rights.
In her understanding case law, Sotomayor said, "There is a right to privacy that women have with respect to the termination of their pregnancies in certain situations."
Easing the tension, Franken turned back to Perry Mason, pressing Sotomayor to name the only episode in which the fictional lawyer lost. She couldn't remember. Neither could he.
It was "The Case of the Deadly Verdict."
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753