Sotomayor: Judges should apply the law, not make it

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor tailored the opening statements of her confirmation hearing to publicly address GOP criticism that she would favor people who share her background, saying her guide is the law.

Sotomayor, who spoke briefly before the Senate Judiciary Committee, did not compare herself to a baseball umpire — as Chief Justice John Roberts did — nor did she deliver any other pithy analogy to sum up her role.

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Instead, she delivered a simple declaration: “The task of a judge is not to make the law — it is to apply the law.”

Though the day was without questions directed at the nominee, senators offered their own opening remarks, which sketched an outline for the week of hearings. Republicans portrayed her as an activist judge who will let her personal background and ethnicity cloud her judgment, while Democrats defended the first Hispanic nominee as an extremely competent legal scholar who possesses an amazing personal story.

Despite the partisan lines, at least one senior Republican acknowledged Sotomayor’s confirmation is assured, short of a “meltdown” at this week’s hearings.

That did not happen Monday. Sotomayor, clad in a royal-blue suit, entered the Senate hearing room shortly before 10 a.m., smiling broadly as GOP senators lined up to shake her hand.

But the good cheer faded once senators began making their remarks and Republicans attacked her reputation for fairness and impartiality.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) set the tone early, impugning Sotomayor’s commitment to blind justice and warning that he would vote against any nominee “who is not fully committed to fairness and impartiality toward every person who appears before them.”

That became a familiar line, with other GOP senators citing controversial comments she made about the inevitability of judges feeling the influence of personal biases and prejudices.

“From what she has said, she appears to believe that her role is not constrained to objectively decide who wins based on the weight of the law, but who, in her opinion, should win,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), a senior Republican on the panel. “The factors that will influence her decisions apparently include her ‘gender and Latina heritage’ and foreign legal concepts that get her ‘creative juices going.’ ”

But amid the criticism, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) noted that her confirmation is all but a foregone conclusion.

“Unless you have a complete meltdown, you’re going to be confirmed,” Graham told the nominee.

Given that Democrats control 60 votes and that Republicans are mindful of the historic nature of Sotomayor’s nomination, the GOP is unlikely to filibuster the nominee and more likely to use the hearings to inflict as much political damage as possible on President Obama.

They hope to paint Obama and Sotomayor as advocates for special preferences for minorities and will highlight a controversial ruling Sotomayor delivered against a group of white firefighters from New Haven, Conn.

The firefighters, led by plaintiff Frank Ricci, alleged racial bias when city officials threw out a promotional test after black firefighters scored poorly.

The Supreme Court reversed Sotomayor’s decision last month.

Yet Republicans are leery of waging a full-out assault on Sotomayor for fear of offending Hispanic voters, a growing bloc of the electorate that has moved away from the GOP in recent years.

Liberals have sought to poke at Republican discomfort by accusing the party of subtle racism. Presente Action, a liberal group, has launched Spanish-language radio ads in GOP districts, associating members with comments made by conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who has called Sotomayor a “bigot” and a “racist.”

While Republicans are reluctant to offend Hispanic constituents, they are also under pressure from conservative activists.

The Third Branch Conference, a coalition of conservative leaders and activists, has sent letters to GOP senators calling on them to delay a final vote on Sotomayor until September.

“Republicans made the very important argument that it’s not enough to look at her record on the circuit court because on that court she is bound by precedent and her colleagues. But on the Supreme Court she will have license to kill; she’ll have no constraints,” said Manuel Miranda, chairman of the Third Branch Conference.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) cited arguments that Obama made against Janice Rogers Brown, a GOP-appointed appellate court judge who is black and was opposed by Democrats in 2005.

“Sen. Obama extensively reviewed Justice Brown’s speeches off the court for clues about what he called her ‘overarching judicial philosophy,’ ” Hatch said of his former colleague.

Republicans say they are doing the same thing. They have repeatedly cited a speech Sotomayor gave before the University of California at Berkeley School of Law in which she stated her 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.”

Republicans criticized Sotomayor repeatedly for suggesting in that speech and others that judges would be influenced by personal views.

But Democrats rose to Sotomayor’s defense.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) accused critics of distorting Sotomayor’s words.

“One attack that I find particularly shocking is the suggestion that she will be biased against some litigants because of her racial and ethnic heritage,” said Feingold. “This charge is not based on anything in her judicial record, because there is absolutely nothing in the hundreds of opinions she has written to support it.”

Sessions also questioned whether Sotomayor’s past association with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Education Fund, which has a history of opposing promotional tests on which whites outscore minorities, influenced her rejection of the firefighters’ lawsuit.

“Could it be that her time as a leader of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund provides a clue as to her decision against the firefighters?”

Sotomayor rejected that suggestion flatly when it finally came her turn to speak.

“My career as an advocate ended — and my career as a judge began — when I was appointed by President George H.W. Bush to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York,” Sotomayor said, delivering her comments with deliberateness and force.

Sotomayor emphasized her modest upbringing, her long career as a judge and her commitment to fairness, and in an emotional moment thanked her mother, who was seated behind her, dabbing tears with a white handkerchief.

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