Obama Says Judge Regrets Wording

By Dan Eggen and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 30, 2009

President Obama said yesterday that Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor regrets her choice of words in a 2001 speech in which she said a "wise Latina" judge would often make better decisions than a white male.

But Obama, in his first public remarks on the controversy, also condemned "all this nonsense that is being spewed out" by critics who have accused Sotomayor of being a racist and have likened her to a leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

"I'm sure she would have restated it," Obama said of Sotomayor's remarks, in an interview with NBC News that will air next week. "But if you look in the entire sweep of the essay that she wrote, what's clear is that she was simply saying that her life experiences will give her information about the struggles and hardships that people are going through.

"That will make her a good judge," he added.

The comments underscored a shift in the White House's approach to Sotomayor's controversial speech, which has become a flashpoint for many conservatives opposed to her nomination.

At the same time, Republican leaders scrambled yesterday to contain some of the more incendiary and racially tinged remarks that have been aimed at the judge, fearing that continued personal attacks on Sotomayor could severely damage the GOP's appeal to women and Hispanics. Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said he was "uneasy" with some of the remarks and urged Republicans to focus on her legal record.

In the 2001 speech in Berkeley, Calif., focused on how her Puerto Rican heritage affects her role as a judge, Sotomayor said at one point: "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."

Echoing the separate remarks by his boss, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters: "I think she'd say that her word choice in 2001 was poor, that she was simply making the point that personal experiences are relevant to the process of judging." Gibbs said that he had not talked with Sotomayor about the issue but that others had.

The sentence prompted accusations of racism from some prominent conservatives, including radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh and former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.). Limbaugh ratcheted up his rhetoric further yesterday, comparing Sotomayor, a federal judge for nearly 17 years, to former Klan leader David Duke.

"It's sort of hard to completely quantify the outrage I think almost anybody would feel at the notion that you're being compared to somebody who used to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan," Gibbs said in his daily press briefing. "It's amazing."

The developments illuminate the political minefields that surround the nomination of Sotomayor, who is the first Hispanic and the fourth woman to be put forward for a seat on the nine-member Supreme Court. The GOP, in particular, has lost ground badly among Hispanics and women over the past four years, and centrist Republicans fear that the party will face political disaster if it mishandles a nomination that is almost certain to be confirmed anyway by the Democratically controlled Senate.

In an interview in his Capitol Hill office yesterday, Sessions criticized the comments from Gingrich and Limbaugh. "I don't think that's good rhetoric," said Sessions, who was denied a federal judgeship in 1986 amid questions about his own racial sensitivity. "The question is, has the judge gone too far or not, given the established law of the land?"

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