Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar brought something rare and valuable to the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor: a savvy questioning style that invited the nominee to offer extended and revealing answers regarding her views on the law.
That’s what should happen at judicial confirmation hearings. But it rarely does — and it might not have at Judge Sotomayor’s session, had it not been for Klobuchar.
The senior senator from Minnesota got the judge talking, at length, about the extent to which the legal system can address broader societal ills, about the burden of sentencing guidelines that limit the options of judges, about the stark questions that arise when a prosecutor realizes a defendant is innocent and even about Perry Mason — don’t laugh, he popularized the law as a profession to which working-class kids from the Bronx and Plymouth, Minnesota, might aspire.
“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’,” Judge Sotomayor acknowledged in response to a question from Klobuchar, adding a human note to the routine give-and-take of the past several days.
The nominee was not just throwing off a pop-culture reference.
Judge Sotomayor, a former Manhattan prosecutor, was making a serious point about the law:
For the young people behind all of you, they may not even know who Perry Mason was, but Perry Mason was one of the first lawyers portrayed on television. And his storyline is that, in all of the cases he tried — except one — he — he proved his client innocent and got the actual murderer to confess.
In one of the episodes, at the end of the episode, Perry Mason and the character who played the prosecutor in the case were meeting up after the case. And Perry said to the prosecutor, “It must cause you some pain having expended all that effort in your case to have the charges dismissed.” And the prosecutor looked up and, “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.” And I thought to myself, that’s quite amazing to be able to serve that role, to be given a job, as I was by (New York County District Attorney Robert) Morgenthau, a job I’m eternally grateful to him for, in which I could do what justice required in an individual case.