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?"
But Sessions added that the Judiciary Committee may not be able to hold hearings on Sotomayor quickly enough to make a decision by August, as Obama has requested.
Although Senate GOP leaders have been generally restrained in their remarks about Sotomayor, racially charged attacks from other conservatives have dominated much of the public discussion since her nomination Tuesday. Gingrich, for example, wrote to followers on his Twitter account this week: "White man racist nominee would be forced to withdraw. Latina woman racist should also withdraw."
Former Bush administration adviser Karl Rove questioned the intellect of Sotomayor -- a graduate of Princeton University and Yale Law School -- while Curt Levey of the conservative Committee for Justice argued that she was "picked because she's a woman and Hispanic, not because she was the best qualified."
Former congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) took Sotomayor to task for her membership in the National Council of La Raza, calling the nation's largest Hispanic advocacy group "a Latino KKK without the hoods or nooses."
The group's president, Janet Murguía, said in an interview: "There should be some sensitivity among factions of the Republican Party who are making these extreme comments. . . . The optics don't look very good. It will not resonate well with Hispanics or with women."
The deteriorating tone of the attacks has clearly alarmed many in the GOP establishment, who say the party must remain civil in its criticism of Sotomayor and should focus on legal issues, rather than personal attacks or racial accusations. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, called such remarks "terrible" during a National Public Radio interview and noted that Gingrich and Limbaugh are not "elected Republican officials."
"This is not the kind of tone any of us want to set when it comes to performing our constitutional responsibilities of advise and consent," he said. "I just don't think it's appropriate."
John Ullyot, a GOP strategist who worked on judicial nominations as a Capitol Hill staffer, said that "any comments politically on race or gender are fraught with peril for Republicans."
"A few conservatives from outside of the Senate, in their zeal to pick a fight over Obama's nominee, decided to get very ugly very quickly," Ullyot said. "No one in the Senate has followed along, and that's the loudest condemnation you can have."
More than two dozen Republican senators issued news releases this week about Sotomayor, and virtually all of them were restrained and noncommittal. Many also emphasized that her nomination is an important milestone.
A handful of key Republican senators hit the airwaves within hours of Sotomayor's nomination and offered measured objections to her 2001 speech, however, saying it was one of the issues they want her to address during Judiciary Committee hearings. Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) also questioned "her ability to rule fairly without undue influence from her own personal race, gender or political preferences."
In his first day back in Washington since the nomination was announced, Sessions said he had spoken briefly by phone with Sotomayor and expected to talk with her in person next week when she begins making the rounds for meetings with key senators. He said he and Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who will appear together on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, have not spoken about the process because Leahy has been traveling abroad during the week-long Memorial Day recess.
"I hope people will say, 'This is the way a hearing should be conducted,' " Sessions said.
Staff writer Shailagh Murray and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.