In GOP, Supreme Court Nominee Sotomayor's Record Takes a Back Seat to Her Words

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), right, and ranking Republican Jeff Sessions (Ala.), left, say they, not the White House, will set the schedule for Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), right, and ranking Republican Jeff Sessions (Ala.), left, say they, not the White House, will set the schedule for Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court confirmation hearings. (By Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)
By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 1, 2009

Republican senators voiced skepticism yesterday about President Obama's choice for the Supreme Court, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, but avoided the name-calling that has come from some conservative activists, notably former House speaker Newt Gingrich and radio host Rush Limbaugh, who have labeled Sotomayor a "racist."

"I don't think that's an accurate description of her," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee and one of several Republican senators who discussed the nomination on the Sunday talk shows.

Sessions agreed on NBC's "Meet the Press" that Sotomayor's record -- former prosecutor, corporate lawyer, 17 years as a federal judge, at both the district and circuit levels -- is "the kind of background you would look for, almost an ideal mix" of experience for the Supreme Court. "That's very strong in her favor," he said.

But he said he and other members of his party are concerned about speeches Sotomayor has given about a judge's decisions being affected by life experiences. "It goes against the heart of the great American heritage of an independent judge," he said.

None of the Republicans on the shows predicted attempting a filibuster to block Sotomayor's nomination, but none ruled it out, either.

"I think we need to look at the record fully, and I think we ought to do that in an expeditious way," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.). "I don't think that the need for filibuster will be there unless we have not had a chance to look at the record fully. That's when a closer vote comes into play."

One of Sotomayor's home-state senators, and her sponsor through the Senate confirmation process, Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), predicted that GOP senators will not mount a filibuster.

On ABC's "This Week," Schumer said he thinks Republicans will see her as a "legally excellent" and "not a far-left-wing judge," noting that "Business Week said her record on business was moderate" and that "the Wall Street Journal called her mainstream."

"I think she's virtually filibuster-proof when people learn her record and her story," he said.

Much of the talk-show discussion involved Sotomayor's remark at a 2001 conference on Hispanics in the judiciary in which she talked about how her Puerto Rican heritage affects her role as a judge. "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.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) seemed to be the most offended of the talk-show guests. "What she said is that, based on her life experiences, that she felt a Latina woman, somebody with her background, would be a better judge than a guy like me -- a white guy from South Carolina," Graham said on "Fox News Sunday." "It is troubling, and it's inappropriate, and I hope she'll apologize."

President Obama has said he thinks Sotomayor would have "restated" the remarks to make clear she was talking about how "her life experiences will give her information about the struggles and hardships that people are going through -- that will make her a good judge."

Sessions appeared on NBC with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), and the two said they would decide when confirmation hearings will begin. Leahy said the confirmation process will proceed on the Senate's schedule, not on the one set by Obama, who wants a vote on Sotomayor before the Senate takes its recess Aug. 7.

But Leahy seemed to issue a mild warning to Republicans that, if attacks on Sotomayor as a racist continue, he might schedule the hearings earlier than he normally would to allow her time to defend herself.

Meanwhile, a conservative group active in judicial nominations called on Republican senators to use the confirmation process to show the difference between Democratic and Republican judicial philosophy, as well as the parties' views of the Constitution.

The Third Branch Conference said that "we all slumbered during the Clinton Supreme Court nominations and failed, by acquiescence and inertia, to alert Americans to the consequences of the popular vote."

The group said Republicans should be ready to filibuster -- not to block a vote on Sotomayor's nomination but to provide for a debate that "is appropriately long and, therefore, suitably catalyzed to the American people."

The letter was signed by a long list of conservative activists and was an attempt, said the conference's Manuel Miranda, to move the conversation away from "a small set of noisy groups aided by their paid publicists" and toward the wider conservative movement.

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