- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 3, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) — Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Wednesday he shouldn’t have called Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor a racist, but said he was still concerned that she would bring bias to her decisions.

In a letter to supporters, the Georgia Republican said that his words had been “perhaps too strong and direct” last week when he called Sotomayor a reverse “racist,” based on a 2001 speech in which she said she hoped the rulings of a “wise Latina” would be better than those of a white male without similar experiences. Gingrich’s remarks created a furor among Sotomayor’s backers and caused problems for GOP figures who have been pushing to bring more diversity to the party.

Gingrich conceded that Sotomayor’s rulings have “shown more caution and moderation” than her speeches and writings, but he said the 2001 comments “reveal a betrayal of a fundamental principle of the American system — that everyone is equal before the law.”

Sotomayor, 54, would be the first Hispanic and the third woman to serve on the high court.

Gingrich’s reversal came as Sotomayor’s supporters hit back against GOP criticism of her 2001 remarks and the notion that she would bring personal prejudice to rulings. They circulated a 1994 speech in which the judge made similar statements. Sotomayor disclosed the speech during the 1997 Senate debate over seating her on a federal appeals court, but no Republican publicly voiced concern about it at the time.

In that speech, Sotomayor said, “I would hope that a wise woman with the richness of her experiences would, more often than not, reach a better conclusion” than a wise man.

“What is better?” she said. “I … hope that better will mean a more compassionate, caring conclusion.”

“No one made an issue out of Judge Sotomayor’s comments the last time the Senate confirmed her for the federal bench, because everyone understood what she meant and knew her respect for the rule of law was unquestionable,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Sotomayor’s unofficial chaperone during her Supreme Court confirmation process. He said conservatives were merely trying to “politicize” the nomination this time.

Sotomayor returned to Capitol Hill Wednesday for a second crucial set of meetings with senators. She has used the visits to reassure Republicans and Democrats alike that while her background has shaped her worldview, she believes in following the law and wouldn’t let her life experiences inappropriately influence her judgments.

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said he was “very glad” that Gingrich dialed back his rhetoric.

“I think that will help us have a real good discussion about the serious issues that the nation faces and that the court faces,” Sessions said during a television interview.

But he also said he was still worried about Sotomayor’s past statement.

“It basically suggests that a judge should not aspire to be objective since that’s impossible to do. It’s inevitable that your personal views would affect your decision-making. And to me, that’s directly contrary to our great history of blind justice in America,” Sessions added.

Sotomayor was visiting 10 Republicans and Democrats as the leaders of the Judiciary Committee were to meet separately to try to cut a deal on when her confirmation hearings should begin.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., the Judiciary chairman, wants the process to begin next month, with the goal of holding a final confirmation vote before Congress leaves in early August for a monthlong summer vacation. He’s negotiating with Sessions, who says he’d rather go slower in delving into Sotomayor’s voluminous record of rulings during her 17 years as a federal judge, with hearings to be held in September.

Obama is pushing for a quicker timetable, hoping to spare Sotomayor the potential pitfalls of a drawn-out public debate on her confirmation during the customary August news lull and get her seated in time to participate in discussions at the high court in September on which cases to hear when the session begins in October.

Sessions spoke on CNN and Fox News.

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