WASHINGTON – Sonia Sotomayor pushed back vigorously Tuesday against Republican charges that she would bring bias and a liberal agenda to her seat as the first Hispanic woman on the Supreme Court, insisting repeatedly she would be impartial as GOP senators tried to undercut her with her own words from past speeches.
For all the pointed questioning in a grueling, daylong hearing, there was little doubt that President Barack Obama's first high court choice — with solid backing from the Democrats and their lopsided Senate majority — would be confirmed. Sen. Patrick Leahy, Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said as much — and predicted she would receive at least some Republican backing.
Sotomayor, 55, kept her composure — judge-like, supporters said — during the intense day of questions and answer, listening intently and scribbling notes as senators peppered her with queries, then leaning into her microphone and gesturing for emphasis as she responded. She returns for another full day of questioning on Wednesday.
"My record shows that at no point or time have I ever permitted my personal views or sympathies to influence the outcome of a case," the appeals court judge declared during a tense exchange with Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the committee that is conducting this week's confirmation hearings. He repeatedly questioned her ability to be objective as a Supreme Court justice, citing her own comments.
Sotomayor backed away from perhaps the most damaging words that had been brought up since Obama nominated her seven weeks ago — a 2001 comment suggesting that a "wise Latina" judge would usually reach better conclusions than a white man. She called the remark "a rhetorical flourish that fell flat."
"It was bad because it left an impression that I believed that life experiences commanded a result in a case, but that's clearly not what I do as a judge," Sotomayor said.
She also distanced herself from the man who nominated her, after Republican Sen. Jon Kyl asked whether Sotomayor shared Obama's view — stated when he was a senator — that in some cases, the key determinant is "what is in the judge's heart."
"I wouldn't approach the issue of judging in the way the president does," she said. "Judges can't rely on what's in their heart. They don't determine the law. Congress makes the laws. The job of a judge is to apply the law."
Republicans sounded unconvinced by Sotomayor's defense.
"I am very troubled that you would repeatedly over a decade or more make statements" like the one in 2001, Sessions said.
And Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Sotomayor's answers Tuesday were starkly at odds with her previous comments. "That's what we're trying to figure out — who are we getting here?" he said.
During her first chance to answer questions publicly, Sotomayor stopped short of calling the right to abortion settled law but also said, "All precedents of the Supreme Court I consider settled law subject to" great deference but not absolute. Under repeated questioning, she said she'd have an open mind on gun rights.
She also defended her most frequently criticized ruling: a decision by a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year to dismiss the claim of white firefighters in New Haven, Conn., who alleged racial discrimination after being denied promotions.
The Supreme Court reversed the ruling late last month, and critics point to it as evidence that Sotomayor lets her own racial bias trump the law.
"People all over the country are tired of courts imposing their will against one group or another without justification," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, questioning how Sotomayor approached the case.
Sotomayor said the lawsuit, in which New Haven scrapped the results of a promotion test because too few minorities did well, was not about quotas or affirmative action.
"We were following precedent," she said.
Leahy was the first to question Sotomayor on the case, and he teed up a sympathetic portrayal of her approach, saying she would have been criticized however the panel had ruled — "You're damned if you do and damned if you don't," he said. Prodded by Leahy, Sotomayor said she "absolutely" would have approached the case differently in light of the new standard she said the Supreme Court laid out in its recent ruling.
Democrats devoted much of their time to lobbing friendly questions at Sotomayor, but they also tried probing the nominee's views on their supporters' top concerns, such as abortion rights — a staple of Supreme Court confirmation fights for decades.
Sotomayor, who hasn't ruled on the issue during her 17 years on the federal bench, shed little light on her view, confining her answers to legal-speak that never went beyond what the high court has said on the subject. She said the right to abortion is "the Supreme Court's settled interpretation of what the core holding is," as affirmed in a separate 1992 ruling.
Sotomayor's came close to saying the issue was settled law — but stopped short of that flat declaration. Under questioning by Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., Sotomayor did say she considered the existence of a right to privacy — considered a key precursor of Roe — to be "settled law."
Under questioning by Graham, she also professed ignorance of cases in which the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, a civil rights group she advised as a board member between 1980 and 1992, argued for taxpayer-funded abortions.
"I never reviewed those briefs," Sotomayor told Graham.
Leahy was first to ask about the "wise Latina" comment that has sparked so much controversy.
"I want to state upfront, unequivocally and without doubt: I do not believe that any racial, ethnic or gender group has an advantage in sound judging," Sotomayor said. "I do believe that every person has an equal opportunity to be a good and wise judge, regardless of their background or life experiences."
On gun rights, Republicans and Democrats alike questioned Sotomayor about her view of whether the Second Amendment protection against curbs on the right to keep and bear arms applied to states.
Her response showed Sotomayor — and the White House coaches who have helped prepare her for the hearings — is cognizant of the political potency of the issue.
"I understand how important the right to bear arms is to many, many Americans," Sotomayor told Leahy, adding that one of her godchildren is a member of the National Rifle Association and she has friends who hunt.
Obama named Sotomayor to replace Justice David Souter, who retired last month. While Souter was appointed by a Republican, President George H.W. Bush, he frequently sided with the court's liberal bloc on controversial issues such as abortion and affirmative action.
As a result, if confirmed, Sotomayor appears unlikely to alter the court's balance of power on those issues.