Washington Sketch: What Did Sotomayor Mean by That?

Members of the Washington community give their opinion on Obama's decision to nominate Judge Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court. Video by Emily Kotecki/The Washington Post
By Dana Milbank
Thursday, May 28, 2009

In her years on the bench, Sonia Sotomayor has produced millions of words. Opponents of her Supreme Court nomination are particularly interested in 32 of them:

"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," she said in a 2001 speech.

Fox News anchors and guests began to rail about the sentiment an hour before President Obama announced the nomination on Tuesday: "Reverse racism. . . . Revolutionary, radical. . . . Completely counter to the notion that justice should be blind."

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich joined the chorus. "A white man racist nominee would be forced to withdraw," he wrote on his blog. "Latina woman racist should also withdraw."

Yesterday afternoon, the matter spilled into the White House briefing room. "Are you familiar with Newt Gingrich's blog?" asked CBS News's Chip Reid.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs smiled at the very notion. "I am not, no," he said.

Reid told Gibbs of Gingrich's proposal for Sotomayor to withdraw, and the presidential spokesman responded with a warning for Gingrich and "anybody involved in this debate to be exceedingly careful with the way in which they've decided to describe different aspects of this impending confirmation."

Gibbs proceeded to work his way through the various White House talking points on the nominee: "Federal judicial experience that exceeds any nominee for 100 years. Strict adherence to precedent. . . . Common sense and open-minded decisions. . . . Keen intellect." As for Sotomayor's critics, the spokesman taunted, "I'm not sure what number they graduated in their class at Princeton, but my sense is it's not second."

Missing from Gibbs's answer was any attempt to explain or defend the 32 words. But that's what Supreme Court confirmation proceedings are all about. Both sides recite the usual buzzwords -- No litmus test! Judicial restraint! No legislating from the bench! -- while pretending they are concerned not in the least about concrete issues.

"Robert, does the president know for a fact that Judge Sotomayor supports the ruling in Roe v. Wade?" CBS Radio's Mark Knoller asked at yesterday's briefing.

"Mark, the president doesn't have a litmus test," Gibbs replied, as the kabuki instructions require.

Both sides take for granted that Sotomayor supports abortion rights, but nobody is allowed to say it. Instead, the White House arranged for a quintet of legal scholars to hold a teleconference with reporters yesterday that tilted heavily toward platitudes. "She reads statutes extremely closely," said one. "This is a lawyer's lawyer," said another. "Cares a lot about judicial craft," said a third.

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