- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor retreated from her praise of the “wise Latina,” endorsed a privacy right to abortion in the Constitution and insisted she was not opposed to gun ownership during a day of questioning on a string of hot-button issues before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

In her first extended public exchanges since President Obama nominated her in May, Judge Sotomayor said her widely cited 2001 remark that a “wise Latina woman” would tend to make better judgments than a white man was a “failed rhetorical flourish that fell flat” - and not, as critics charge, evidence of racism.

“The context of the words I said has created a misunderstanding,” said Judge Sotomayor, the first Hispanic and the third woman nominated to the high court.

“I want to state upfront, unequivocally, I do not believe that any ethnic, racial or gender group has an advantage in sound judgment. I do believe that every person has an equal opportunity to be a good and wise judge,” she said.

Republicans appeared unconvinced.

“You doubt the ability to be objective in your speeches,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the Judiciary Committee’s ranking Republican and a former prosecutor. “How can you reconcile your speeches that repeatedly assert that impartiality is a mere aspiration?” He said her testimony conflicted with her prior statements.

Judge Sotomayor, 54, was unruffled as she scribbled notes on a yellow legal pad and fielded questions on a broad range of contentious legal issues, from gun control and abortion to the 2000 presidential election fight and property rights.

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TEXT: Sotomayor’s opening statement on Monday

The nominee to replace retiring Justice David H. Souter said she accepted a recent Supreme Court decision that the Second Amendment guarantees the right of individuals to buy guns, but sidestepped a controversy that may soon come before the Supreme Court over whether that right limits the ability of individual states to impose their own restrictions.

“I understand … how important the right to bear arms is to many, many Americans,” she said. “I have friends who hunt. I understand the individual right fully that the Supreme Court recognized.”

Asked whether the decision affects the right of states to impose limitations, a question on which the lower courts are divided, she replied, “I would not prejudge any question that came before me if I was a justice of the Supreme Court.”

Republicans on the Senate panel pressed the nominee repeatedly during the day, provoking occasional terse exchanges but no dramatic clashes. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and other sympathetic Democrats often raised some of the most contentious issues to give the judge a chance to frame her answer.

Mr. Sessions and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, spent much of their opening round of questions probing Judge Sotomayor’s stance in ruling against a group of white New Haven, Conn., firefighters who claimed discrimination in favor of black and Hispanic co-workers.

Judge Sotomayor concurred in a 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that ruled the group of mostly white firefighters could not sue when city officials threw out employment test results after virtually no minority candidates qualified for promotion.

Judge Sotomayor and her supporters argued that her stand was rooted in precedent and that the Supreme Court set a new standard when it sided with the firefighters on a 5-4 vote late last month.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, pressed Judge Sotomayor on her decision to sign on to an abbreviated opinion in the case, and also condemned the liberal group People for the American Way, which has begun attacking Frank Ricci, the New Haven firefighter who was the lead plaintiff in the case.

Pressed by Mr. Hatch about what he called allegations of a “smear” campaign against Mr. Ricci, Judge Sotomayor said any attacks on Mr. Ricci are “reprehensible.”

But she maintained that U.S. courts have long recognized that “race in some form must be considered” in enforcing some equal-protection rights under the Constitution.

She added that she shared the hope of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor that “in 25 years, race in our society won’t be needed to be considered in any situation.”

In one of the more nuanced debates of the hearings, Judge Sotomayor and Mr. Hatch debated just what constituted a pair of nunchakus. The martial-arts weapon was at the center of a Second Amendment case Judge Sotomayor decided that angered gun-rights activists.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, pressured Judge Sotomayor on whether she would consider the health of women when deciding abortion cases, if confirmed to the court.

“The health and the welfare of the woman must be a compelling consideration,” the nominee said.

Judge Sotomayor called the Roe v. Wade decision, which established abortion as a right, a “settled law.”

“There is a right of privacy,” she said. “The court has found it in various places in the Constitution, has recognized rights under those various provisions of the Constitution.”

Pro-life activists repeatedly interrupted Monday’s opening of the confirmation hearings. Among the protesters escorted from the Hart Office Building hearing room was Norma McCorvey, the Texas woman who was “Roe” in the 1973 case but is now a pro-life activist.

A fifth protester was thrown out of the hearing room Tuesday afternoon after he began screaming that Republicans would lose the support of the pro-life community if they did not attempt to filibuster Judge Sotomayor’s confirmation.

“People say I have the ability to turn people on,” quipped Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, who had been interrupted by the protester.

With a 12-7 majority on the committee, Democrats are increasingly confident that Mr. Obama’s pick faces few hurdles to confirmation.

Mr. Leahy told reporters during a break in the hearings that Judge Sotomayor would be confirmed and added, “I’m convinced it will not be a party-line vote.”

Judge Sotomayor is not expected to alter the ideological balance on the court. Justice Souter generally sided with the Supreme Court’s liberal wing on many of the most fiercely argued cases.

• Tom LoBianco can be reached at tlobianco@washingtontimes.com.

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