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Mock exercises prepare Sotomayor for hearings

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JESSE J. HOLLAND
July 10, 2009
— Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor has endured weeks of insults, obnoxious questions and unwelcome drilling into her work as a judge and a lawyer and it was all on purpose, essentially a dress rehearsal for her confirmation hearings.

In a series of faux hearings, Sotomayor has been barraged by hostile questions thrown her way by allies preparing the federal appeals judge for the interrogation that will begin Monday. She's been reviewing her past writings, speeches, cases and legal opinions while gaming questions she is likely to hear next week when the Senate Judiciary Committee takes up her nomination.


And Sotomayor also has been learning the quirks of senators who will do the questioning, and developing a thick skin for the barbs that might come her way.


The point is to ensure that no question comes up that Sotomayor hasn't heard and hasn't answered in the mock exercises.


"Judges are not accustomed to being judged," said Ed Gillespie, a White House counsel for President George W. Bush who helped prepare John Roberts and Samuel Alito for their confirmation hearings. "Helping them to understand the nature of the confirmation process and the nature of the Senate is important."


Sotomayor has faced Senate questioning before when she was nominated by President George H.W. Bush for a federal trial judgeship in 1992, and again in 1997 when President Bill Clinton nominated her for a seat on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.


But the intensity will be tenfold this time, and millions of Americans will be watching on television. Because of that, her preparation has been much more intense, too.


No one involved in assisting Sotomayor would speak on the record about the details of her mock hearings, but people who've played similar roles with past nominees have described what usually takes place.


Top-flight lawyers from the Justice Department and the White House, as well as political strategists, gather in a room with the nominee and, often adopting the same mannerisms of the senators on the committee, shoot questions at her.


Traditionally, these practice sessions are held in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which is within the White House complex. Supreme Court nominees are given office space there.


Former Assistant Attorney General Rachel Brand, who participated in the prep exercises for Roberts and Alito, said the questions are culled from senators' public statements, previous Supreme Court confirmation hearings, questions posed during the nominee's courtesy visits with senators, media reports and hot-button issues in the nominee's record.


"People with political judgment can make guesses about what is going to come up and what's not going to come up in the hearing," Brand said.


For example, Sotomayor's speech at the University of California at Berkeley Law School in which she said, "Our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions," will likely be a topic of discussion for senators concerned with judicial activism.


Another sure topic was the race discrimination claims of white firefighters in New Haven, Conn., a case in which the Supreme Court two weeks ago overturned a decision by Sotomayor and her fellow appeals court judges. Republicans plan to call as one of their witnesses firefighter Frank Ricci, the lead plaintiff, whose claim that he was denied a promotion because of reverse discrimination Sotomayor rejected.


The nominee is told to answer exactly as she plans to answer at the actual hearing, part of the effort to make the moot hearings as close to the real thing as possible.


"We did them in real time," Gillespie said. "If the hearings were slated to start at 9, we would start at 9 and we'd go through 12:30, at which point we anticipated the committee would break for lunch, and then we'd go back in at 2 and go through dinner. We tried to replicate the time of day and duration of the hearing, because I think that matters. You get to know if somebody is better at morning or at night."


What might be different between the mock and the real hearings is the aggressiveness of the questioning.


"We made a point during the mock hearings of trying to be even more galling or offensive than even the most galling or offensive senator might dare be," said Gillespie, "to help the nominee have a mindset that no matter how obnoxious a question might be or a questioner might get, just answer the questions and be a judge and demonstrate that judicial temperament."


Some Supreme Court nominees have their preparations videotaped for review, and some don't. Either way, after each mock hearing, the nominee is critiqued. The exercise is repeated over and over until everyone is comfortable.


"For each nominee, we held 16 moots, each lasted about four hours," Brand said. "So for four weeks in a row, we went four times a week."


Some nominees have reviewed the performances of past Supreme Court nominees, studying how they answered questions and appeared before the cameras. The low-water mark belongs to Robert Bork, the conservative judge nominated in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan.


Bork was criticized for appearing unfeeling at his confirmation hearings, demonstrating more care about legal ideas than the impact of the law on people. The Senate ended up rejecting his nomination.


Bork participated in a couple of the preparation exercises set up before his hearings and blew off the rest the last Supreme Court nominee to do so.


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Associated Press writer Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this report.



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