Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Confirmation Hearings for Sonia Sotomayor


Sonia Sotomayor's Statement At Her Confirmation Hearing

Sotomayor Defends Ruling in Firefighters’ Bias Case

Frank Ricci, second from left, the lead plaintiff in Ricci v. DeStefano, the race discrimination case that is playing a central role in Judge Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings.

Published: July 15, 2009

WASHINGTON — Judge Sonia Sotomayor refused on Wednesday to be pinned down about her views on abortion rights, a subject she said President Obama never brought up before he nominated her for a Supreme Court seat.

The judge was asked about abortion by two conservative Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, John Cornyn of Texas and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. Mr. Coburn is one of the Senate’s most outspoken foes of abortion rights.

To Mr. Cornyn, who also pressed her on Wednesday about her now-famous “wise Latina” remark and her handling of the New Haven firefighters’ lawsuit, Judge Sotomayor replied that no one at the White House had queried her on abortion.

The back-and-forth with Mr. Coburn, a doctor who has delivered several thousand babies, seemed at first to have the potential to be emotional, although it never became so, in part because Mr. Coburn’s tone was low-key and the nominee’s responses were anything but personal.

“Where are we today?” Mr. Coburn asked. “What is the settled law in America about abortion?”

In response, Judge Sotomayor cited recent Supreme Court history. “In Planned Parenthood versus Casey, the court reaffirmed the core holding of Roe versus Wade, that a woman has a constitutional right to terminate her pregnancy in certain circumstances.

“In Casey,” she went on, “the court announced that in reviewing state regulations that may apply to that right, that the court considers whether that regulation has an undue burden on the woman’s constitutional right. That’s my understanding of what the state of the law is.”

But Mr. Coburn was seeking to engage her on a deeper, perhaps more personal level. “Let’s say I’m 38 weeks pregnant and we discover a small spina bifida sac on the lower sacrum, the lower part of the back, on my baby, and I feel like I just can’t handle a child with that,” he said. “Would it be legal in this country to terminate that child’s life?”

The nominee said she could not answer “in the abstract, because I would have to look at what the state of the state’s law was on that question and what the state said with respect to that issue.”

In his opening remarks to the nominee, Mr. Coburn apologized for the several outbursts by anti-abortion protesters since the hearings began. “Anybody who values life like I do and is pro-life recognizes that the way you change minds is not yell at people,” the senator said. “You love them.” Earlier in the hearing, the judge sought to undo whatever damage has been done to her candidacy by the “wise Latina” remark.

”My words failed, they didn’t work,” she told Senator Cornyn, who zeroed in what he said were several instances in which she asserted that “a wise Latina woman” might reach a different, even a better, decision than a white male.

Judge Sotomayor sought repeatedly to parry the questions of Mr. Cornyn, himself a former Texas Supreme Court judge, or to explain away the remarks that have come back to haunt her. Essentially, she seemed to be saying that a judge’s personal background may help in discerning facts and seeing them in context — but would not, or should not, determine how a judge rules.

One’s past, and perhaps one’s gender, “helps you listen and understand,” she said. “It doesn’t change what the law is and what it commands.”

Mr. Cornyn, who was soft-spoken and courteous throughout what amounted to a cross-examination, said he was “struggling a little bit to understand” some of the distinctions the nominee was trying to make.

The Texan said he was “shocked” at the sparse “per curiam” opinion in which Judge Sotomayor, who sits on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, dealt with a suit brought by white and Hispanic firefighters in New Haven after the results of a promotional exam were thrown out.

The Second Circuit’s ruling was recently reversed by the Supreme Court, and Senator Cornyn wondered aloud, as some other senators have, how the circuit could have handled it so perfunctorily. The judge said, as she has before, that a brief, summary kind of order by a circuit does not necessarily signal lack of interest, especially if a district court has already dissected the issues thoroughly.

Judge Sotomayor spoke in calm, even tones throughout. At one point, Mr. Cornyn asked her to respond to comments by a former colleague that she had “general liberal instincts.”

Yes, the judge agreed, in the sense that “I promote equal opportunity in America.” As for the former colleague’s opinion of her, she was a bit dismissive. “He’s a corporate litigator,” she said, observing that corporate litigators “only look at the laws when it affects a case before them.”

The panel’s top-ranking Republican, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, introduced a letter from the National Rifle Association expressing “serious reservations” about the nominee’s fidelity to the rights of gun owners.

But Senator Ben Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, weighed in with support for the nominee, citing a remark from another federal judge that she could not easily be put in one philosophical camp or another. That judge, Mr. Cardin said, was an appointee of former President Ronald Reagan.


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