- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 4, 2009

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on Wednesday renounced his charge that Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor is racist, saying the comment was “perhaps too strong and too direct,” but urged Republicans to challenge the judge’s court record.

Mr. Gingrich appeared to be heeding concerns among Republican lawmakers that overly aggressive personal or ideological attacks on the first Hispanic nominee to the high court will further alienate Hispanic voters from the Republican Party.

Instead, Senate Republicans who will question Judge Sotomayor say they will focus on her judicial philosophy.

“The word ‘racist’ should not have been applied to Judge Sotomayor as a person, even if her words themselves are unacceptable (a fact which both President Obama and his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, have since admitted),” Mr. Gingrich said in a mea culpa posted on his Web site.

But he said Judge Sotomayor’s 2001 comments “reveal a betrayal of a fundamental principle of the American system - that everyone is equal before the law.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, praised Mr. Gingrich for toning down his language.

“I think that will help us have a real good discussion about the serious issues that the nation faces and that the court faces,” Mr. Sessions told CNN.

Democrats have made political hay out of Mr. Gingrich’s remarks, while Republican senators have shied away from them.

“Former Speaker Gingrich is not in the habit of apologizing, even when he’s wrong, which is oftentimes the case,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “I think this kind of 180 just shows how concerned Republicans are with not further alienating the growing Hispanic population in this country.”

Judge Sotomayor, 54, told an audience in 2001 that she “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.”

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh also softened his stance on Judge Sotomayor, saying he could support her if she turns out to be pro-life, though he would not back off his statement that she’s a racist.

In a confirmation process relatively devoid of other hot-button issues, conservative groups say they must get involved to activate their base in time for the 2010 elections and demonstrate the ideological differences between the parties.

Republican senators have largely chafed at the attacks from Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Limbaugh, taking a collegial, if reserved, tone with Judge Sotomayor’s nomination. Although Sen. Lindsey Graham, who met with Judge Sotomayor Wednesday, issued a withering assessment following their meeting, saying he would have trouble voting to confirm her.

Mr. Obama, who nominated her to be the Supreme Court’s first Hispanic female justice, suggested she made a poor word choice in 2001. In closed-door meetings with senators this week, Judge Sotomayor echoed the president’s words and said she would abide by the law, rather than identity politics.

As Mr. Gingrich pulled back on the comment, liberal groups pushed the remark back into the spotlight by circulating a blog post saying that conservatives had little problem with Judge Sotomayor when she made a similar remark in 1994.

“I would hope that a wise woman with the richness of her experience would, more often than not, reach a better conclusion” than a man, Judge Sotomayor told an audience in 1994.

Judge Sotomayor made the comment in a speech on women in the judiciary, delivered in Puerto Rico.

A Republican Senate aide said the revelation shows that Judge Sotomayor’s comments were more than just a poor word choice. But a Democratic spokesman said the comments show how much the debate is being blown out of proportion.

“This highlights that all of this so-called controversy is much ado about nothing,” Mr. Manley said.

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