White House defends Sotomayor remarks

The White House continued to push back Sunday at critics of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, defending her controversial remarks and attacking opponents.

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White House advisor David Axelrod, appearing on two of Sunday morning’s talk shows, said Republicans like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) are trying to create a diversion by focusing on comments by Sotomayor that someone of her background might make different decisions than a white male.

“The point she was making and the point the president made about the point she was making is that we're all the sum total of our experiences and you bring those experiences with you to the bench,” Axelrod said on CNN's “State of the Union” on Sunday.

“I think that the debate is kind of a diversion from her 17- year record as a judge,” Axelrod said. “She is widely respected as a judge. So I think those who oppose her nomination would like to create a side debate by taking her words out of context.”

On CBS's “Face the Nation,” Axelrod criticized Gingrich and others who have leveled the racism charge.

“I was gratified that Speaker Gingrich ... withdrew that comment. I think it was an unfortunate comment. I think that it's so unfair and so unreflective of who she is,” Axelrod said.

Appearing on “Face the Nation,” Gingrich defended himself, saying his application of the term “racist” to Sotomayor as a person was inappropriate, but that her language fit the bill.

“Having read what she said, I said that was racist, but I applied it to her as a person. The truth is, I don't know her as a person. It's clear that what she said was racist,” Gingrich said on Sunday. “And it's clear that she didn't just say it once.”

At the center of the story are comments Sotomayor made in a 2001 speech at the University of California-Berkeley.

“I would 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,” Sotomayor said in the speech.

Radio host Rush Limbaugh also described the comments as racist, while Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who met with Sotomayor this week, told her he would have been out of a job had he made similar remarks.

President Obama said last week in an interview with NBC News that, given the choice, Sotomayor would have chosen different words. “I'm sure she would have restated it,” Obama.

Sotomayor has made comparisons between white males and Hispanic females on a number of occasions.

But Sotomayor's defenders have pointed out that other Supreme Court justices, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Samuel Alito, have made similar statements.

Other Democrats have used the criticism leveled at Sotomayor to call for faster confirmation hearings, something Republicans do not want to have happen. Last week, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said Limbaugh's criticisms “pretty well demands that she have a hearing sooner rather than later.”

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is shepherding Sotomayor's nomination through the Senate, has also defended her remarks, pointing out that she praised the Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. At that time, the Court was entirely comprised of white males.

Republican officeholders have distanced themselves from pundits and radio hosts who focus their criticisms on the Berkeley speech. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the ranking GOPer on the Judiciary Committee, said he would not call her a racist. In the GOP's weekly radio address, Sessions focused less on Sotomayor than on President Obama's judicial philosophy writ large.

The GOP does not want to risk further alienating Hispanic voters, who largely abandoned the party after immigration debates in 2005 and 2006. But those who call Sotomayor's comments racist remain more closely associated with the Republican brand than others, and they show no signs of leaving the stage.