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Sotomayor Emphasizes Objectivity, Explains 'Wise Latina' Remark

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Sonia Sotomayor explains the context of her controversial 2001 statement, saying that she was trying to inspire Latino students "to believe that they can become anything that they wanted to become, just as I had.'' Video by The Washington Post

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By Amy Goldstein, Robert Barnes and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor sought yesterday to reframe critics' portrayal of her as a judge swayed by her gender and ethnicity. On the second day of her confirmation hearings, she stressed the primacy of legal precedents and distanced herself from her most controversial public remark, saying her line that a "wise Latina" judge might reach better decisions than a white man was "a rhetorical flourish that fell flat."

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Throughout the long day of questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sotomayor proclaimed her neutrality and objectivity, even suggesting at points that she does not share the view of President Obama, who chose her to fill his first vacancy on the nation's highest court, that empathy is an essential trait for a judge.

"It is very clear that I don't base my judgments on my personal experiences -- or my feelings or my biases," she said. At another point, she said that judges should "test themselves to identify when their emotions are driving a result, or their experiences are driving a result, and the law is not."

With the hearings expected to last much of the week, yesterday's eight-hour session underscored the strategy of each political party -- and the nominee herself. In a practice polished by other Supreme Court candidates in recent decades, Sotomayor answered questions without disclosing many of her views, saying repeatedly that she was constrained because the issues involved settled law or matters on which she might be called to rule in the future.

Republican senators spent the day boring in on a handful of cases from Sotomayor's nearly 11 years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit that raised issues the GOP believes are her greater vulnerabilities -- and the greatest assets with the party's political base. They grilled her closely but politely about gun ownership, property rights, abortion, interrogation policy and a discrimination case involving Connecticut firefighters that the Supreme Court overturned last month.

Responding to pointed questions from Republicans and gentler ones from Democrats, Sotomayor betrayed little hint of what kind of justice she would be if, as both parties predict, she is confirmed to the Supreme Court. At one point, asked by a Democratic senator to name the sitting justice with whom she most identifies and is most likely to agree, Sotomayor dodged, citing Benjamin N. Cardozo, who died more than 70 years ago.

As she faced the senators' horseshoe-shaped dais in the paneled hearing room of the Hart Senate Office Building, with a chorus of cameras clicking each time she made broad gestures, Sotomayor, 55, took frequent notes and revealed scant emotion beyond a smile or a flash of humor. Democrats seemed eager to counteract any vestige of a reputation -- disputed by many who know her -- that she can be testy on the bench.

"I must say that, if there's a test for judicial temperament," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told the nominee at midday, "you pass it with an A-plus-plus."

Committee Republicans appeared careful not to be too caustic in questioning Sotomayor, who would be the court's first Hispanic member -- and is part of the nation's fastest-growing ethnic group. Democrats, for their part, appeared sensitive at times not to seem too sympathetic.

"We hold you in great regard, but I believe we have a right to know what we're getting before we give you a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land," said Sen. Herb Kohl (Wis.), the committee's second-ranking Democrat.

No Senate Republicans have said whether they will support Sotomayor's nomination. And yesterday, some GOP committee members said her testimony -- that her experiences play no role in her judging -- was inconsistent with past public remarks. "That's what we're trying to figure out," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C). "Who are we getting here?"

Sotomayor gave her fullest explanation to date of her 2001 speech at the University of California at Berkeley, which contained the "wise Latina" remark that has become a lightning rod for her conservative critics. She told the senators that the line had been an attempt to play off a famous observation by former justice Sandra Day O'Connor and others that, all other things being equal, a wise old man should reach the same decision as a wise old woman.


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