Latina Woman, Tongue-Tied Man

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.

Leading the call, Harvard's Martha Minow, a law-school classmate of the nominee, declared: "I am so struck by her mastery. . . . I mean, this is a pro. This is a very sophisticated person. This is what you see when you get a summa cum laude graduate of Princeton."

Even Sotomayor's alleged weakness as a legal theorist was turned into a positive. "She's not been writing op-eds or developing large theories," Minow said. "What you see is someone who decides the cases that come before her."

The nominee herself has already placed calls to leaders of the Senate and its Judiciary Committee. The White House issued a campaign-style memo titled "What They're Saying About Judge Sotomayor." In it were phrases such as "first-rate" and "bold and brilliant." Naturally, there was no mention of the matters that were fueling the opposition -- Sotomayor's opinion that the "Court of Appeals is where policy is made," and her thoughts on the superior judgment of Latinas.

"Are you saying that there is no racial dimension and there should be no racial dimension interpreted or drawn from Judge Sotomayor's comments?" Fox's Major Garrett asked Gibbs.

Gibbs ducked the question, directing Garrett to "read the full article" and advising reporters: "I think we can all move past YouTube snippets and half-sentences and actually look at the honest-to-God record."

April Ryan of American Urban Radio shouted back at the press secretary: "These are words that she said out of her mouth!"

Gibbs would have done well to mention Sotomayor's line in that same speech in which she said that "we should not be so myopic as to believe that others of different experiences or backgrounds are incapable of understanding the values and needs of people from a different group." But Gibbs evidently wasn't prepared, for all he said when pressed to explain the 32 words was "I think -- I -- I have confidence in Americans reading not just part of, but the whole statement."

As Ryan continued to hector Gibbs, the spokesman grew testy, telling her, "You're not understanding even remotely the full context of what she said in that debate."

Actually, it was a speech, but that was the least of Gibbs's troubles. The questioning had drawn the interest of ABC News's Jake Tapper, who said he had read the entire speech but was still "wondering if you can explain what she meant."

Gibbs ducked again, telling the reporters that the speech was "about the unique experiences that she has" and again recommending people "look at her whole record" in its "totality."

"You're not spinning us," Tapper complained. "We're asking you, spin us! Explain what you think she meant."

"I have done that," Gibbs said.

But he'll have to do better to make the 32 words go away.

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