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Sotomayor pushes back on racial basis questions

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., right, flanked by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah., questions Sonia Sotomayor on Tuesday.  (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., right, flanked by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah., questions Sonia Sotomayor on Tuesday. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, deflecting tough questioning by Republicans on the second day of her confirmation hearings, said Tuesday that in 17 years as a judge she has never let her own life experiences or opinions influence her decisions.

Sotomayor, 55, said her now-famous remarks 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 give everyone assurances, I want to state up front, 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.”

Over the course of the day, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee asked Sotomayor about most of the controversial remarks and decisions she has made as a district judge and on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, as well as enduring issues such as abortion and executive power.

Like most of the modern nominees before her, President Barack Obama’s nominee 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.

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 “was bad, because it left an impression that I believed that life experiences commanded a result in a case.” Sotomayor said she was trying “to inspire young Hispanics, Latino students and lawyers to believe that their life experiences added value to the process.”

Sotomayor was first given the chance to explain her remarks – “no words I have ever spoken or written have received so much attention,” she said – by committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who guided her gently.

But Sen. Jeff Sessions, of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the panel, was not satisfied by Sotomayor’s explanations.

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.”

Sotomayor 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.

Sotomayor, in her first session taking questions from the senators, made for an unflappable witness. She spoke slowly and carefully. She took notes on each question and showed no offense at tough questions from Sessions and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the only other Republican senator who had a chance to quiz her during the morning session.