Sotomayor finished; hearing moves to witnesses

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor finished four days of testimony on Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee with few bruises, heading toward a full Senate vote with at least some likely Republican support.

Sotomayor wrapped up a grueling week at the witness table at about 1:30 p.m., after fielding a final round of salvos from GOP senators who appeared to be diluting their long-running protests of her judicial fitness and philosophy.

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“I have received all the graciousness and fair hearing that I could have asked for,” Sotomayor told the committee just before leaving the room in the Hart Senate Office Building and getting a bear hug from Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

Witnesses called by the Democratic majority began to bolster Sotomayor during the afternoon, with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau offering expansive statements.

But underscoring the high stakes, moments of tension and stiff criticism persisted Thursday even in Sotomayor’s absence. Republicans called Lt. Frank Ricci, the lead plaintiff in the Ricci v. DeStefano case, in which Sotomayor’s ruling was recently overturned by the Supreme Court. The case is an affirmative action matter 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.

“We never asked for sympathy from the courts,” Ricci told the committee. “We simply asked for serious consideration of our claims and an acknowledgment of our basic right to be treated fairly.”

Earlier, however, Sotomayor successfully stuck to her weeklong strategy of mimicking the testimony of recent court nominees like Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito — describing herself as a strict constructionist of the Constitution.

And asked repeatedly again on Thursday about her controversial 2001 remark that a “wise Latina” would have a superior judicial mindset, Sotomayor simply repeated her disavowal of the phrase, describing it as “pretty bad in terms of leaving a bad impression.”

“I regret that I have offended some of you. I believe that my life demonstrates that that was not my intent, to leave the impression that has been created by my words," Sotomayor said.

The repeated disavowals and refusals to be drawn into clear, philosophical statements appears to have thawed some of the harsher GOP critics on the committee. Ranking Republican Jeff Sessions of Alabama said while he still has “serious concerns” about Sotomayor, there will be no GOP filibuster of her nomination.

Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina signaled he may even vote for Sotomayor, telling the nominee he was convinced of her impartiality despite repeated references in her speeches that suggest she may have an activist bent.

“Fundamentally, judge, you're able, after all these years of being a judge, to embrace a right that you may not want for yourself, to allow others to do things that are not comfortable to you, but for the group, they're necessary,” Graham said. “That's what makes you, to me, more acceptable as a judge and not an activist, because an activist would be a judge who would be champing at the bit to use this wonderful opportunity to change America through the Supreme Court by taking their view of life and imposing it on the rest of us.”