More in GOP make race focus of Sotomayor nomination

They allege she wouldn't be fair to white men

Sonia Sotomayor was tapped for the Supreme Court. Sonia Sotomayor was tapped for the Supreme Court.
By Peter Wallsten
Los Angeles Times / June 1, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Since the introduction last week of Sonia Sotomayor, Republican senators wary of attacking the first Hispanic Supreme Court nominee have lashed out at conservatives in their party who branded the would-be justice a racist and have even predicted a smooth confirmation.

But several of those same GOP senators said yesterday that they would now make race a focus of the Sotomayor nomination battle - and they were far less eager to criticize conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich for their racially tinged critiques. Adopting similar language as they fanned out across network television talk shows, the senators in essence pledged to ask a fundamental question: Can a woman who says her views are shaped by her gender and ethnicity make fair decisions when it comes to white men?

"We need to know, for example, whether she's going to be a justice for all of us or just a justice for a few of us," said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, speaking on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos."

Days earlier, Cornyn had said in a radio interview that it was "terrible" for conservatives to be attacking Sotomayor as a racist. He did not reiterate those sentiments yesterday, and pledged that he and other Republican lawmakers would probe deeply into Sotomayor's past comments and rulings to see whether her heritage colors her ability to make fair decisions.

Cornyn's comments were echoed in appearances by the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky; Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee; and Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, another member of the panel that will conduct hearings.

McConnell refused to repudiate Limbaugh, Gingrich, and other conservatives who have called Sotomayor a racist, telling CNN that they were "entitled to their opinions." The minority leader added that he had "better things to do than be the speech police over people who are going to have their views about a very important appointment."

Sessions, asked on NBC's "Meet the Press" whether he agreed that Sotomayor was a racist, said he would "not use those words," but he added: "I think that she is a person who believes that her background can influence her decision. That's what troubles me."

Kyl also did not respond directly when asked whether Sotomayor was a racist. "I'm not going to get drawn into characterizations before I have even met her. I'll be meeting her," he told CBS's "Face the Nation."

At issue is a 2001 statement in which Sotomayor expressed hope that a "wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

The senators also promised to question Sotomayor about a recent appellate ruling in which she rejected a discrimination claim by a white firefighter.

"By ignoring a genuine constitutional issue about reverse discrimination in the New Haven firefighter case, you know, the comments she made about the quality of her decisions being better than those of a white male - I mean, we need to go further into her record to see whether this is a trend or whether these are isolated and explainable events," Cornyn said.

McConnell cited the case of the white firefighter to suggest that Sotomayor might be inclined to side with any underdog no matter what the law might require.

"You know, every federal judge raises his or her right hand and swears to treat the rich and the poor the same. But what that really means is that, if a rich person has both the law and the facts on their side in a court case, they ought to win," McConnell said.

Sotomayor's defenders say that the line has been taken out of context and that she was merely making the point that any judge's outlook is shaped by his or her experiences, just as conservative Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Antonin Scalia have pointed to the discrimination felt by their Italian ancestors as having an effect on them.

There is no indication that Sotomayor's confirmation is in serious jeopardy.

Moreover, many Republican strategists continue to worry that the party risks further alienating Hispanic voters. And early analyses of her judicial opinions undercut the attacks on Sotomayor as a judge more interested in boosting minorities by showing that the vast majority of her rulings rejected claims of discrimination by minorities.