WASHINGTON – In a bit damage control, the White House on Friday said Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor acknowledges she chose her words poorly by saying in 2001 that a female Hispanic judge would often reach a "better" conclusion than a white male judge.
"I think if she had the speech to do all over again, I think she'd change that word," presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.
The quote in question from Sotomayor has emerged as a rallying call for conservative critics who fear she will offer opinions from the bench based less on the rule of law and more on her life experience, ethnicity and gender. That debate is likely to play a central role in her Senate confirmation process.
The new episode also underscores the scrutiny that Sotomayor's words will receive — and how the White House will respond to try to stay on message.
The comment came in a lecture, titled "A Latina Judge's Voice," that Sotomayor gave in 2001 at the law school of the University of California, Berkeley.
She 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." That came in the context of her saying that "our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging."
Since Tuesday, when President Barack Obama announced Sotomayor's nomination, the White House had answered questions about Sotomayor's comment by telling reporters to read the speech and not dwell on one sentence.
That changed on Friday, when Gibbs was asked about it again. The White House clearly had a new message.
"I've not talked specifically with her about this, but I think she'd say that her word choice in 2001 was poor," Gibbs said at the end of his daily briefing.
"She was simply making the point that personal experiences are relevant to the process of judging, that your personal experiences have a tendency to make you more aware of certain facts in certain cases, that your experiences affect your understanding," Gibbs said. "I think we agree with all that."
Asked how he knew Sotomayor wished she would have chosen a different word, Gibbs said he learned that from talking to people who talked to her.
Sotomayor appears headed for confirmation, needing a majority vote in a Senate, where Democrats have 59 votes. But beyond the final vote, White House officials are pushing for a smooth confirmation, not one that bogs down them or their nominee. Plus, Obama wants a strong win, not a slim one.
More than one line in the 2001 speech has helped drive the debate over Sotomayor's judgment.
She also said, for example: "Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see."
"My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas in which I am unfamiliar," she said. "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."
In announcing Sotomayor, Obama said he wanted a judge who would "approach decisions without any particular ideology or agenda, but rather a commitment to impartial justice." But he also called her life experience essential, saying she had an understanding of "how ordinary people live."