The nomination of the first Hispanic to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, federal appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor, has spawned an ugly political brawl among some Republicans.
Georgia's own Newt Gingrich was one of more notable mud-flingers, although he was not alone among his colleagues. In a Twitter message he transmitted in last week, Gingrich called Sotomayor a "Latina woman racist" who should withdraw her name from nomination.
Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, considered by many to be the unofficial head of the Republican Party, had some equally strong words for the New York jurist: "Here you have a racist. You might want to soften that and you might want to say a reverse racist. And the libs of course say, the minorities cannot be racists, because they don't have the power to implement their racism. Well, those days are gone, because reverse racists certainly do have the power to implement their power."
Pat Buchanan added his 2 cents worth on a cable talk show: "She is also an affirmative action pick."
Fox TV host Glenn Beck offered a similar assessment: "Hey, Hispanic chick lady! You're empathetic ... you're in!"
Georgia Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson are caught in the middle of this controversy because they will be voting at some point with their fellow senators on whether to confirm Sotomayor to that seat on the high court. They will be expected by many of their Republican supporters to try to filibuster and prevent the Senate from even coming to a vote on Sotomayor's nomination.
Do they join the chorus of Gingrich and Limbaugh and make racially charged remarks about Sotomayor, which would please a large segment of their party's base? Or do they refrain from making inflammatory comments, which would upset that same group of voters?
This is a sensitive issue with implications for Republicans both nationally and in Georgia. Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnic group right now. It is estimated there are more than 100,000 registered voters of Latino descent in Georgia, a number that could exceed 150,000 by the time we go to the polls in 2010.
If Chambliss and Isakson join the crowd that's hurling insults at the judge, or take part in an attempt to stop a vote on her, they will stir up the animosity of an important bloc of voters.
They also could be setting themselves up for charges of hypocrisy. Four years ago, when George W. Bush was president and Republicans controlled the Senate, the Democratic minority attempted to block votes by filibustering several of Bush's judicial nominees. Angry Senate Republicans like Isakson threatened to invoke the "nuclear option" and repeal the rule on filibusters, a move that was avoided when Democrats and Republicans reached a compromise on nominations.
"This is all about politics and nothing about the substance of these judges, and that's wrong," Isakson said during that 2005 controversy. He and Chambliss demanded "up-or-down" votes on the Bush nominees and opposed the idea that a presidential nomination might be prevented by a filibuster.
"I cannot envision me not agreeing to allow somebody an up-or-down vote. The way our country's judicial system has always worked is to remove the politics from the nominee," Chambliss said at the time.
The Georgia senators so far are keeping a low profile and doing their best to avoid making statements that would pour more gasoline on the fire.
"I look forward to a thorough examination and debate of her credentials and legal views during the Senate confirmation process." Isakson said diplomatically. "I believe a qualified judge is one who understands the value and the strength and the power of the Constitution of the United States of America, who will rule based on the law, and who will not legislate based on the position."
"I have consistently stated that Supreme Court nominees must not engage in legislating from the bench, but must interpret the laws as they have been passed," Chambliss said. "The Senate deserves an appropriate amount of time to review this nominee. I look forward to a dignified and thorough confirmation process."
It's a tough situation for the state's two senators. They will be under extraordinary political pressure on this one. No matter what they do, they're going to make a lot of voters angry.
Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact's Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays.