Paul Greenberg

But the coming hearings on Judge Sotomayor's nomination to the high court may not produce a moment of truth like Clarence Thomas's. His definitive destruction of his small-minded critics ranks alongside Joseph Welch's dispatching Joe McCarthy, the poor slob, with a single phrase during the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. ("Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?") How quickly bullies become almost pitiable figures once they're exposed.

We may live in less edifying times now, yet all the spin and counter-spin preparatory to Judge Sotomayor's appearance in the committee room have their own fascinations. And consolations, for even if she turns out to be the mediocre judge many anticipate, she'll represent a giant leap above the justice she is to succeed on the high bench. The one whose name you're most likely to forget when trying to remember all nine. What was it Churchill said of Clement Atlee? It could apply just as well to the Hon. David Souter: a modest man with much to be modest about.

The sport in this confirmation hearing will lie in how far the nominee is willing to go to ingratiate herself with the committee, for the senators pretty well hold it in their power to grant or deny the lady her life's ambition. How much simple human dignity might she be willing to sacrifice to win a seat on the court? That's always the most fascinating aspect of such hearings.

The grandfather who raised Clarence Thomas, and taught him self-respect by working him in the fields till he was a mass of sweat and sores, would surely have been proud of how his grandson rose above his less than grand inquisitors. Will there be a Clarence Thomas moment for Sonia Sotomayor, too, or will she smoothly navigate the shallows of the law to the committee's satisfaction?

Her honor has already proven adept at leaving different impressions on at least one legal issue sure to keep coming before the court: gun control, aka gun rights if you prefer.

According to the AP, she's told one senator -- Colorado's Mark Udall -- that she'd stick with the Supreme Court's decision that struck down a ban on handguns in the District of Columbia, thus upholding the Second Amendment and Americans' right to bear arms.

But she's told another senator -- South Carolina's Jim DeMint -- that she'd stick with an appellate decision she's voted to uphold that asserts the Second Amendment prevents only the federal government, not states or localities, from infringing on the right to bear arms.

Interesting. Her Honor is nothing if not flexible.

As my immigrant mother might say on hearing someone deliver a particularly smooth sales pitch, she'll do well in America. Any judge can look at a case and give you an opinion. One destined to be confirmed as a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States can look at a case and give you the opinion you want.

Just what kind of associate justice Her Honor would prove on the Supreme Court is hard to know, but she's already proving one heckuva politician.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.