Sotomayor gets GOP grilling at hearing

Senate Republicans went on the attack against Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor in their sharpest, most personal fashion yet on Tuesday, pressing the point that the judge cannot properly set aside her background when deciding cases.

Judiciary Committee ranking member Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsFederal judge rules Trump defunding sanctuary cities 'unconstitutional on its face' FBI informant gathered years of evidence on Russian push for US nuclear fuel deals, including Uranium One, memos show Alabama election has GOP racing against the clock MORE of Alabama and former Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchProminent conservative passes on Utah Senate bid Republicans offer this impossible choice: Tax cuts or senior care Senate GOP running out of options to stop Moore MORE of Utah repeatedly grilled Sotomayor on 15 years of past statements and speeches that they described as flawed, inconsistent and biased.

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Sessions led the charge, zeroing in on her controversial remark in a 2001 speech that suggested a “wise Latina” could have a superior judicial mindset to that of a white male. Sessions said the remark has been part of her speeches for several years, and read aloud in several instances.

"It's not just a sentence ... It's a body of thought over years and years that gives us problems," Sessions said. "And I'm just very concerned that what you're saying today is inconsistent."

During her opening statement Monday, Sotomayor described her judicial philosophy as “fidelity to the law,” and on Tuesday she repeatedly insisted that it is possible for a judge to rule impartially by simply identifying cases in which his or her life experiences risk influencing eventual decisions.

"No words I have ever spoken or written ... have received as much attention," Sotomayor said of the 2001 speech, explaining that she was trying to "inspire" her audience and that she was misunderstood.

"I want to state up front that I do not believe any ethnic group has an advantage in sound judgment ... Both men and women are equally capable of being wise and fair judges."

Hatch focused on the Ricci v. DeStefano case, on which Sotomayor’s ruling was recently overturned by the Supreme Court. The case is an affirmative action case in which white firefighters sued the city of New Haven, Conn., for throwing out the results of a promotion test after minority firefighters failed to qualify. Sotomayor had upheld a lower court decision in favor of the defendants.

“It’s always easier to look at these things in retrospect, and I know you’re under a lot of pressure, but I want you to know how important these cases are,” Hatch said. “These are cases where people are discriminated against.”

Sotomayor said she simply followed the precedent of the lower court ruling and that she did not view the case as being about race.

"The issue in Ricci is what the city did or could do when it was presented with a challenge to one of its tests for promotion," she said.

Democrats on the committee seemed close to losing patience with their GOP colleagues. Chairman Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyLawmakers, celebs honor Tony Bennett with Library of Congress Gershwin Prize Dem senator jokes: 'Moment of weakness' led me to share photo comparing Trump, Obama Leahy presses Trump court nominee over LGBTQ tweets MORE (Vt.) led Sotomayor through gentle questioning with few follow-ups, while Herb Kohl of Wisconsin noted the low reversal rate of Sotomayor’s decisions and Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinFive things to know about the elephant trophies controversy The feds need to be held accountable for role in Russia scandal Lawyer: Kushner is 'the hero' in campaign emails regarding Russia MORE of California praised the nominee for keeping her cool despite the criticism.

“If there’s a test for judicial temperament, you have passed it with an A-plus-plus,” Feinstein said. “[Sotomayor] has been characterized as an activist when she is anything but. That’s out there, and some of it is getting across.”

Wearing a dark red suit, Sotomayor took occasional notes as she fielded questions and sipped from two glasses of water. She spoke calmly and confidently, if cautiously, still wearing an orthopedic brace on her lower right leg from a month-old ankle injury, and gesturing often as she spoke. Her hand movements frequently caused a wave of cameras to go off from about two dozen photographers kneeling just a few feet in front of her.

Sotomayor also fielded a host of controversial questions, including about the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, the 2000 Bush v. Gore decision that awarded the presidency to George W. Bush and the reach of executive power during the ensuing Bush administration.

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Sotomayor responded that she accepted both the Roe v. Wade and Bush v. Gore decisions as accepted legal precedent, and sidestepped the question about executive power by noting a prior case that ruled the president cannot act outside the Constitution although context must be considered.

Behind the scenes, both Democratic and Republican “war rooms” churned out multiple press releases as Sotomayor spoke. A GOP press office distributed nine separate releases in two and a half hours, aiming to highlight contradictions and inconsistencies in her testimony.

Independent assessments of Sotomayor also made their way into the senators’ statements on both sides. When Leahy quoted a study that found Sotomayor’s federal court record to be free of racial bias, Sessions quoted another study that suggested her rulings were considered too liberal for the American mainstream.

The nominee is widely assumed to be a near shoo-in for confirmation, underscored by GOP Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamAlabama election has GOP racing against the clock Graham on Moore: 'We are about to give away a seat' key to Trump's agenda Tax plans show Congress putting donors over voters MORE (S.C.), who told Sotomayor on Monday, “unless you have a complete meltdown, you’re going to be confirmed.”

U.S. Capitol Police arrested five protesters who had disrupted Monday’s hearing, but there were no such disturbances through the first half of Tuesday’s session.