Left and Right Begin Battle Over Sotomayor's Supreme Court Nomination

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 Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 28, 2009

On the day after Judge Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court, both sides in the fight over her confirmation moved quickly to try to define the woman who may become the court's first Hispanic justice.

The White House enlisted lawyers and constitutional experts to say that in Sotomayor's 17 years on the federal bench, she has been a cautious jurist who respects precedent. But conservative legal groups countered that her remarks in speeches and symposiums bolster their claims that she is a liberal activist waiting to flower on the high court. One prominent conservative accused her of "reverse" racism, and another called her a "wild-eyed judicial activist."

Curt Levey, executive director of the conservative legal group Committee for Justice, said her judicial record would probably not be enough to stop Sotomayor's confirmation, given the Democratic dominance in the Senate, but her speeches are another matter. "The best predictor of whether a controversial nominee can be stopped is whether the case against her is based on more than just her legal analysis," he said.

A perennial subject -- abortion -- surfaced again as a question mark and an emblem of other controversial topics, worrying some traditionally liberal groups that the White House may be too intent on portraying Sotomayor as an independent moderate.

Several interest groups called on the Senate to try to discern Sotomayor's views on a woman's right to have an abortion vs. the government's right to restrict the procedure.

"I don't know what her position is on the core constitutional protections of Roe v. Wade," said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, adding: "I will be nervous if the Senate doesn't get answers to the question."

Meanwhile, conservatives have seized upon Sotomayor's unscripted moments to make the case that she is outside the mainstream. The two most often quoted are a statement she made about how appellate judges make policy and her observation about how being a Latina affects her role as a judge: "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

The White House has said the remarks are being taken out of context and reflect only the obvious point that Sotomayor's life experiences affect her outlook. Press secretary Robert Gibbs reacted sharply to a Twitter post from former House speaker Newt Gingrich that said, "Imagine a judicial nominee said 'my experience as a white man makes me better than a Latina woman' new racism is no better than old racism."

Gibbs said Americans will make up their minds about Sotomayor based on "more than just the blog of a former lawmaker" and added: "I think it is probably important for anyone involved in this debate to be exceedingly careful with the way in which they decided to describe certain aspects of this impending confirmation."

But more is at stake for conservative activists than Sotomayor's confirmation. Some say privately that the larger goal is portraying Obama as having abandoned the moderate persona of the campaign for a liberal governing style as president.

Although Levey acknowledged that his description of Sotomayor as a "wild-eyed judicial activist" would be hard to extract from her record on the bench, he said that "her words are the best indication" of how she would see her role as a justice.

Likewise, Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, described Sotomayor as a "radical pick." But Yoest acknowledged that Sotomayor's most notable ruling on abortion was on the conservative side. In the ruling, she said the Bush administration had the right to prohibit abortions by overseas organizations receiving U.S. funding, as well as the right to prohibit the groups from speaking out against the restrictions.

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