- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 30, 2009

The White House said Friday that Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor now regrets saying in 2001 that a Hispanic woman would tend to arrive at a “better conclusion” in making legal decisions than a white male.

“Her word choice in 2001 was poor,” spokesman Robert Gibbs said, seeking to settle what has become an early stumbling point for President Obama’s nominee as she prepares for her Senate confirmation battle.

“I think she would change that word,” Mr. Gibbs said, adding that he based his comment on “discussions with people that have talked to her.”

The 2001 remark has sparked some of the harshest criticisms of the Bronx, N.Y.-born appeals court judge, who, if confirmed, would be the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice in U.S. history. Radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh and former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich cited the remark in accusing Judge Sotomayor of being “racist” this week.

But those attacks have led other conservatives to call for a sharp shift in the tone and tenor of the opposition to Mr. Obama’s pick. These other conservatives said that the debate over Judge Sotomayor should focus instead on her judicial record and philosophy.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele, guest-hosting Bill Bennett’s “Morning in America” radio show, said Friday that critics should not be “slamming and ramming” Judge Sotomayor, but need to make a “cogent, articulate argument” against her on substantive grounds.

“We don’t need to play this the way the Democrats have played it in the past,” he said.

Asked about the racism charges, Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, called them “terrible.”

“This is not the kind of tone that any of us wants to set when it comes to performing our constitutional responsibilities of advise and consent,” he said in an interview with National Public Radio. Mr. Cornyn represents a state with a large Hispanic minority and also is heading the Republican campaign effort in the 2010 senatorial races.

Mr. Obama, in an interview with NBC News that aired Friday night, sought to define the meaning of Judge Sotomayor’s comment eight years ago at the University of California, Berkeley.

“I’m sure she would have restated it,” Mr. Obama said. “But if you look in the entire sweep of the essay that she wrote, what’s clear is that she was simply saying that her life experiences will give her information about the struggles and hardships that people are going through - that will make her a good judge.”

In her 2001 remarks, reprinted in a 2002 edition of the Berkeley La Raza Law Journal, Judge Sotomayor said, “I 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.”

The remarks came in an extended address titled, “A Latina Judge’s Voice,” in which the 54-year-old judge reflected on her ethnic background and the impact of her heritage and life experiences on her work as a judge.

Noting the slow growth of Hispanic and other minority judges in the nation’s courtrooms, the judge observed that “personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see.”

She added, “My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging, but I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage.”

She made her remark about Hispanic women tending to make “better conclusions” than their white male counterparts after citing a remark from former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor that “a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases.”

Mr. Gibbs said Friday that Judge Sotomayor at the time was “making the point that personal experiences are relevant to the process of judging.”

The White House spokesman cited other Supreme Court nominees, including sitting Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., nominated by President George W. Bush, who have referenced their personal background and its impact on their professional work.

In his confirmation hearings, Justice Alito was asked about his ability to relate to the downtrodden and weak. He replied that, in discrimination cases, he thinks about his own Italian-American relatives “who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background, because of religion or because of gender.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Obama, when announcing his choice of Judge Sotomayor, said she can employ an empathetic “common touch” on the bench that he desires. She would replace retiring Justice David H. Souter.

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