Sotomayor repudiates ‘wise Latina’ comment

Cool amid barrage by GOP senators

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor chatted with Senators John Cornyn of Texas (left) and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina during a break in her confirmation hearing yesterday. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor chatted with Senators John Cornyn of Texas (left) and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina during a break in her confirmation hearing yesterday. (charles dharapak/associated press)
By Robert Barnes and Paul Kane
Washington Post / July 15, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, deflecting tough questioning by Republicans on the second day of her confirmation hearings, said yesterday that in 17 years as a judge she has never let her own life experiences or opinions influence her decisions.

Sotomayor said her now-famous remark that she would hope a “wise Latina’’ would make better decisions because of her life experiences than a white male was a regrettable “rhetorical flourish that fell flat,’’ and does not reflect her views.

“I want to state upfront, unequivocally and without doubt, I do not believe that any ethnic, racial, or gender group has an advantage in sound judging,’’ she said. “I do believe that every person has an equal opportunity to be a good and wise judge regardless of their background or life experiences.’’

In a grueling first day of fielding questions from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sotomayor addressed most of the controversial remarks and decisions she has made as a federal district judge and on the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, as well as enduring issues such as abortion and executive power.

Like most of the modern nominees before her, President Obama’s first pick for the high court largely dodged giving her own opinions on the issues, pledging to be guided by precedent and declining to say how she might act if a particular issue returned to the court.

“I don’t prejudge,’’ she said.

Insisting repeatedly that she would be impartial, Sotomayor pushed back aggressively against Republican attempts to use her own words to argue that she would bring bias and a liberal agenda if she is confirmed, as expected, as the first Hispanic woman on the court.

Sotomayor said her “wise Latina’’ remark was an attempt to play off a famous observation by former justice Sandra Day O’Connor and others that, all other things being equal, a wise old man should reach the same decision as a wise old woman.

“I knew that Justice O’Connor couldn’t have meant that if judges reached different conclusions - legal conclusions - that one of them wasn’t wise,’’ Sotomayor said. “That couldn’t have been her meaning, because reasonable judges disagree on legal conclusions in some cases.’’

At the same time, Sotomayor acknowledged, her own comment in a 2001 speech “was bad, because it left an impression that I believed that life experiences commanded a result in a case.’’

Sotomayor, 55, said she was trying “to inspire young Hispanics, Latino students, and lawyers to believe that their life experiences added value to the process.’’

She was first given the chance to explain her remark - “no words I have ever spoken or written have received so much attention,’’ she said - by Judiciary Committee chairman Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who guided her gently and who predicted she will win some Republican support.

But Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the panel, was not satisfied by Sotomayor’s explanation to Leahy about controversial parts of her record.

Reading a series of remarks Sotomayor has made about how life experiences affect the outlook of a judge, Sessions questioned whether she could be fair.

“I think it’s consistent in the comments I’ve quoted to you and your previous statements that you do believe that your backgrounds will . . . affect the result in cases, and that’s troubling me,’’ Sessions said. “Don’t you think that is not consistent with your statement, that you believe your role as a judge is to serve the larger interest of impartial justice?’’

Sotomayor replied: “My record shows that at no point or time have I ever permitted my personal views or sympathies to influence an outcome of a case. In every case where I have identified a sympathy, I have articulated it and explained to the litigant why the law requires a different result.’’

The judge said her remarks about prejudices and points of view show only that judges are human - “not robots’’ - but must consciously work to put those feelings aside when following the law.

She also distanced herself from the man who nominated her. Senator Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, asked whether Sotomayor shared Obama’s view - stated when he was a senator - that in some cases, the key determinant is “what is in the judge’s heart.’’

“I wouldn’t approach the issue of judging in the way the president does,’’ she said. “Judges can’t rely on what’s in their heart. They don’t determine the law. Congress makes the laws. The job of a judge is to apply the law.’’

Peppered with questions at times, Sotomayor made an unflappable witness. She spoke slowly and carefully, in a deep voice. She took notes on a legal pad on each question and showed no offense at tough questions from Sessions and other Republicans.

“I don’t think her answers were responsive, no,’’ Sessions told reporters during a lunch break, suggesting that her explanation that her “wise Latina’’ comments “fell flat’’ did not clear up the issue. “It was really confusing to me.’’

But he conceded that stylistically, the nominee “handled herself well.’’

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, congratulated Sotomayor on her demeanor, which was devoid of any of the sharp remarks she acknowledges that she sometimes employs on the bench.

“I must say that, if there’s a test for judicial temperament, you pass it with an A-plus-plus,’’ Feinstein said. “. . . You have just sat there, very quietly, and responded to questions that, in their very nature, are quite provocative.’’

In questioning the nominee, the senators repeatedly uttered the word “wise’’ - as framed in some context around Sotomayor’s “wise Latina’’ speech. They also mentioned “Ricci,’’ the shorthand phrase for the reverse-discrimination case involving New Haven’s fire department, and “Heller,’’ a reference to the key gun-rights case in the District of Columbia in which the Supreme Court recognized in the Second Amendment an individual right to own guns.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, seemed to find no fault with Sotomayor’s decisions, but said her answers yesterday were starkly at odds with her previous comments.

He said her speeches make the Republicans on the committee wonder what kind of justice she would become. “Don’t become a speechwriter if this law thing doesn’t work out,’’ he told her. Sotomayor smiled.

Amy Goldstein of the Washington Post staff contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was also used.