A prominent pro-life Catholic says he will be quietly rooting for Judge Sonia Sotomayor to be confirmed to the Supreme Court and said she may even be an improvement over retiring Justice David H. Souter - as both sides of the abortion issue try to discern her position.
William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said Judge Sotomayor’s record has more bright spots than conservative Catholics can reasonably expect to get from an appointee of President Obama.
“If the Republicans are smart, they would not fight this one,” he told The Washington Times in an interview Thursday.
“I wish I knew more about her. But from what we know, it looks like she’ll be at least a wash with Souter, and maybe we’ll even see improvement.”
Judge Sotomayor’s record on abortion-related cases is thin and tangential. She ruled on the right of pro-life protesters to sue on charges of police brutality and on a challenge to the “Mexico City policy,” which prevented U.S. government funds from going to aid organizations that counsel for or provide abortions.
The White House said that Mr. Obama did not specifically ask her about her views on the issue but that the president is confident she agrees with him on the fundamental constitutional issues.
But pro-choice groups are uncertain about Judge Sotomayor, and this week they called on senators to ask her directly how she would rule on Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that established a constitutional right to an abortion.
“We encourage the Senate Judiciary Committee to engage Judge Sotomayor and any future nominees to the Court on their commitment to the principles of Roe v. Wade,” said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “Anything less threatens not only a woman’s constitutional rights, but her life and health.”
Pro-life groups also said senators should press for answers.
“We believe it is critical that senators thoroughly explore whether Judge Sotomayor believes that Supreme Court justices have the right to override the decisions of elected lawmakers on such issues as partial-birth abortion, tax funding of abortion and parental notification for abortion,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee.
In the protester case, she said the pro-lifers had a right to have their police-brutality claims adjudicated by a jury rather than be summarily dismissed.
In the 2002 Mexico City policy case, Judge Sotomayor rejected claims from the Center for Reproductive Rights and its attorneys, based on both appeals court and Supreme Court precedent.
Although the decision didn’t deal with the fundamental constitutional issue of abortion rights, she said in the Mexico City case that the “Supreme Court has made clear that the government is free to favor the anti-abortion position over the pro-choice position, and can do so with public funds.”
Mr. Obama ended the Mexico City policy soon after taking office this year.
At the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs said Mr. Obama did not ask Judge Sotomayor about her views on the legality of abortion but asked her enough to be comfortable that she sees the constitutional issues the same way he does. Mr. Obama is pro-choice.
“I think he feels comfortable in asking her to describe the way she interprets, to describe her views on that. He felt comfortable that they shared a philosophy on that interpretation,” Mr. Gibbs said.
He said Mr. Obama and Judge Sotomayor discussed both unenumerated rights and what constitutes settled law.
In 2005, President George W. Bush found himself having to defend his own Supreme Court nominee, Harriet Miers, against complaints from conservatives and pro-life activists who said she lacked a paper trail to prove her conservative credentials.
Miss Miers eventually withdrew her nomination.
Mr. Donohue was not alone among conservative Catholics in calling for pro-lifers to hold their fire.
“My concern is that the people in Obama’s on-deck circle are much worse,” said Steve Dillard, an adviser to the 2008 presidential campaign of Mike Huckabee and founder of the site Catholics Against Rudy. He called Judge Sotomayor “the best of the worst.”
“Do you really want to win this battle only to get Diane Wood?” said Mr. Dillard, a lawyer and former clerk at the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where Judge Wood, whom he called a brilliant radical, sits.
Beyond abortion, Mr. Donohue said, he saw in Judge Sotomayor’s record a history of backing religious liberty claims.
“She said it was wrong to prohibit a menorah on public ground; I like that. She talks about the religious rights of prisoners; I like that too,” he said.
Mr. Donohue also mentioned a more personal angle: his identification with New York’s Puerto Rican community, from which Judge Sotomayor comes. He mentioned leading the Puerto Rican Day Parade at St. Lucy’s Catholic Church in Spanish Harlem and taking “groups of 15, 16 kids to Yankee Stadium.”
“All these things put together, I’m gonna quietly root for her,” said Mr. Donohue, who has never met the nominee.
Mr. Donohue also suggested that opposing Judge Sotomayor’s confirmation would not be wise in the short term, in terms of who the alternative nominee might be.
“I am looking at this pool of likely competitors, and, far and away, Sotomayor is the best candidate,” he said, adding that making too big a political fight over the Sotomayor pick “might look like we have an agenda that will not look good to many in the Latino community.”
• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.