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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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"I knew that Justice O'Connor couldn't have meant that if judges reached different conclusions -- legal conclusions -- that one of them wasn't wise," Sotomayor said yesterday. "That couldn't have been her meaning, because reasonable judges disagree on legal conclusions in some cases."

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Sotomayor said her comment "was bad, because it left an impression that I believed that life experiences commanded a result in a case." She said she had been trying to make a subtler point: "to inspire young Hispanics, Latino students and lawyers to believe that their life experiences added value to the process."

Pressed by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) about statements Obama has made that empathy is a necessary ingredient for a judge, Sotomayor said she has her own view. "I wouldn't approach the issue of judging in the way the president does," she said. "He has to explain what he meant by 'judging.' I can only explain what I think judges should do, which is judges can't rely on what's in their heart. . . . The job of a judge is to apply the law."

At times, Sotomayor skirted questions from Democrats and Republicans alike.

Feinstein raised the issue of the proper bounds of executive branch power, asking Sotomayor what she thought of President George W. Bush's use of "signing statements" that reshaped hundreds of bills he signed into law.

"It's a very broad question," the nominee replied.

"It's one that we are grappling with," Feinstein countered.

"And that's why," the nominee said, "I have to be very cautious in answering it."

Sotomayor was similarly reticent when another Democrat, Sen. Russell Feingold (Wis.), asked her about the Bush administration's policies on interrogations, focusing on a famous pair of memos. Noting that she has never been an adviser to a president, she said: "I don't want to comment on what was done or not done by those advisers in that case. And it's likely that some question -- and I know some are pending before the court in one existing case, so I can't comment."

On abortion, an issue on which she does not have an extensive record of rulings, Sotomayor said she views the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide as settled precedent, and she noted that subsequent court rulings have reaffirmed it.

But she said that Gonzales v. Carhart, the Supreme Court's decision upholding the federal Partial Birth-Abortion Ban Act, is also settled law.

On the issue of gun control, Sotomayor defended her appellate panel's decision that a Supreme Court ruling that had overturned the District's gun-control law does not apply to states that want to restrict gun ownership. She said the panel's decision simply followed what the Supreme Court said. Because the court might decide several pending cases on the reach of the Second Amendment, Sotomayor said she could not express an opinion.

Both Democrats and Republicans asked about her role in Ricci v. DeStefano, the case recently reversed by the Supreme Court in which she had ruled that the city of New Haven, Conn., was justified in dropping a promotions test for firefighters after no blacks qualified for advancement. White firefighters said that amounted to discrimination against them, and the high court agreed.

Sotomayor said she and two fellow judges on an appellate panel "decided that case on the basis of a very thorough 78-page decision by the district court and on the basis of established precedent." She added that judges "are obligated on a panel to follow . . . precedent."


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