WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor — staying cool and apparently headed for confirmation even as Republicans peppered her with questions about her life and work — tried Tuesday to defuse controversy over her remarks about the superior judgment of a "wise Latina," calling her comments a "rhetorical flourish."
The 55-year-old federal appellate judge also told the Senate Judiciary Committee that at no time "have I ever permitted my personal views or sympathies to influence an outcome of a case."
Tuesday was the first day that President Barack Obama's first Supreme Court nominee, who's bidding to become the first Hispanic justice, faced questions from the committee.
The day was seen as a test of Sotomayor's demeanor, whether she could remain measured and calm as Republican senators grilled her hard. Her tone was largely polite, often methodical and occasionally pointed, but almost never confrontational. The hearing probably will last all week.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., summed up the view of skeptics: "I listen to you, I think I'm listening to Judge Roberts," he said, referring to Chief Justice John G. Roberts, who's generally considered conservative.
Graham had questions about Sotomayor's temperament, however, adding that he found many of her speeches over the years disturbing. "Don't become a speechwriter if this law thing doesn't work out," he quipped.
The biggest controversy involved her 2001 remarks about the advantages of being a Latino woman. Republicans questioned her hard on the comment and others that suggest she uses her life experiences to guide her judicial work.
Sotomayor repeatedly assured the committee that she's always striven to be fair, and said that her "wise Latina" comment was "bad because it left an impression that I believe that life experiences commanded a result in a case. But that's clearly not what I do as a judge."
She added, "My record shows that at no point or time have I ever permitted my personal views or sympathies to influence an outcome of a case."
Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., had opened the hearing by getting Sotomayor to defend herself from the "wise Latina" remark.
"You've heard all these charges and countercharges . . . here's your chance. You tell us what's going on here, judge," Leahy said.
"No words I have ever spoken nor written have received so much attention," Sotomayor said, chuckling. "I was trying to inspire them to believe their life experiences would enrich the legal system, because different life experiences and backgrounds always do. I don't think there is a quarrel with that in our society."
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the committee's top Republican, later said that he appreciated Sotomayor's comments.
"She said things I wish she'd been saying for decades," he said. He was still unimpressed, however, saying that her "wise Latina" line was "not one line we're concerned about, but a logical buildup to the statement."
Graham, though, said he wouldn't judge her by that remark. One value of the hearings, he said, is that "some people deserve a second chance when they misspeak, and you look at the entire life story to see if this is an aberration."
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., defended his constituent.
"Empathy," he said, "is the opposite of indifference." He then described Sotomayor rulings in which her legal judgment proved more important than personal sympathy for litigants.
Other controversies came up but, unlike so many Capitol Hill disagreements, became reasoned discussions.
Graham said that some who'd dealt with the appellate court found her "difficult" and asked, "Do you think you have a temperament problem?"
"No, sir," she said. She said she asked "the hard questions" but that she asked them of both sides of a case.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, pressed Sotomayor on whether she believed that the Second Amendment's right to bear arms applies to the states.
The Supreme Court overturned the District of Columbia's strict ban on handguns, but the ruling left unclear whether the constitutional protection extends beyond federal jurisdictions. Sotomayor, who as an appellate judge upheld New York's ban on the joined-sticks weapon called nunchaku, sidestepped the question as one that still could come before the high court.
"In the end," she said, "it's a question the Supreme Court's going to address if it (reviews) one of the three cases in which courts have looked at this question."
Hatch continued to press her but remained cordial. At the end of his half-hour of questioning, the courtly senator told Sotomayor, "I want you to know I've appreciated this little time we've had together."
Graham brought up Sotomayor's involvement with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, whose efforts included promoting bilingual education, affirmative action and opposition to the death penalty.
Graham asked Sotomayor, a former board member, of her view of capital punishment.
"I never litigated a death penalty case personally," she said, though she signed a memorandum for the board to "take under consideration what position on behalf of the Latino community the fund should take" on whether New York should reinstate the death penalty.
Democrats kept their questions friendly. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., asked how the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks changed Sotomayor's views about the Constitution.
She got personal, noting that she lived close to the World Trade Center, then she offered a firm legal reply.
"The Constitution is a timeless document," she said. "It was intended to guide us through decades, generation after generation, to everything that has developed in our country."
Leahy dived right into what's likely to be the biggest controversy of the hearing: Sotomayor's ruling, along with two other judges, that the New Haven, Conn., fire department didn't deny firefighter Frank Ricci a promotion unfairly. The Supreme Court reversed that decision by a 5-4 vote last month.
"This was not a quota case. This was not an affirmative action case," Sotomayor explained. "This was a challenge to a test that everybody agreed had a very wide difference in the pass rate of a variety of different groups."
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