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 Sessions of Alabama and former Chairman Orrin Hatch 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 Leahy (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 Feinstein 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 Graham (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.