WASHINGTON (AP) - Live from the Capitol, Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings promise high political theater this week, beamed to the world in dramatic, historic, perhaps comedic glory.
When the curtain rises Monday on Sotomayor's nomination to become the Supreme Court's first Hispanic justice, a large cast of ambitious players will be ready to explore themes from racial conflict to legal controversy, as well as personal facts and views.
If this is a show, top billing must go to Sotomayor herself, the federal appeals court judge who grew up in a New York housing project where her parents had moved from Puerto Rico. But with camera-loving politicians in charge, the Senate Judiciary Committee drama won't be just about her.
This is about them, too.
Two lawmakers, a Vermont liberal and an Alabama conservative, will have leading roles. Backing them is a supporting cast that will include the Defenders, the Skeptic, the Patriarch, the Doyenne, the Wild Card and the Novice.
Visually, they'll be grouped like this: Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy and Sotomayor at center stage facing each other. Eleven other Senate Democrats - nine white men, two white women - will sit to the audience's right, eager to help Sotomayor defend herself against any conservative charges. Their mandate: do no harm to her overwhelming prospects for taking over retired Justice David Souter's seat on the nine-member court.
On the audience's left - but to the right on your scorecard - will be seven white male Republican senators with a delicate task: respectfully challenging the Latina nominee - on crutches, recovering from a broken ankle - without alienating women or Hispanics.
And try to do it while facing two visible reminders of the GOP's rout in the 2008 elections.
Seated at the end of the Democratic side will be Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, until this year a Republican, and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., the former TV comedian making his Senate debut. He just emerged as the victor in an eight-month recount battle against Republican incumbent Norm Coleman.
A viewer's guide to the faces certain to nab key screen time during the Sotomayor's made-for-TV hearings.
THE LEAD PLAYERS
Chairman Leahy, D-Vt.
If he looks familiar, it could be because he's been in the Senate for more than three decades and participated in hearings of every Supreme Court nominee since now-retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Or it could be the Batman movies. With white hair and bifocals, the man with the gavel has had cameos in all of them, and a speaking part in "The Dark Knight."
Leahy, 69, will be in charge of keeping senators to their allotted 30 minutes for questions, tamping down the inevitable showboating and issuing stern warnings to any protesters who get out of hand.
It's good to be chairman, by the way: He can allot himself all the time he wants to rebut points Republicans try to make or to ask clarifying questions of the nominee. Leahy was a state prosecutor for eight years before coming to the Senate. The grandfather of five is an avid photographer seen at previous hearings snapping pictures of news photographers as they snap photos of him.
Ranking Republican Jeff Sessions of Alabama.
Taking his first turn as the lead Republican at a Supreme Court hearing, the 62-year-old Sessions will sit next to Leahy and, in broad terms, try to reassure the vanquished GOP base that their interests are being represented in this most visible forum.
Sessions wants to know whether Sotomayor allows personal views,
not just the law, to influence her rulings. He has raised doubts about her support for the constitutional right to keep and bear arms. But he's had trouble rallying opposition to Sotomayor's confirmation and early on he ruled out trying to block it with a filibuster.
Personally and politically, he's got big shoes to fill and a delicate line to walk in this role. Sessions is succeeding the sharp-tongued Specter, chairman at the previous two Supreme Court hearings.
Sessions, in his third term, has plenty of experience grilling witnesses; he's a former federal prosecutor. But he has stumbled over issues of race. Comments he allegedly made sank his own nomination by President Ronald Reagan to be a federal judge.