Despite tough questioning, Sotomayor remains unruffled

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 15, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor revealed only what she wanted to, and nothing more, during two days of grilling by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The 55-year-old New York native showed her human side; at one point, pivoting in her chair to whisper to her 82-year-old mother, Celina, "Thanks, Mom." She flexed her prosecutorial muscle, speaking of her time in the district attorney's office. She stayed calm, praised precedent and respectfully cited conservative justices.

Though the confirmation hearing continues Thursday with further questioning of Sotomayor and testimony by witnesses, including some antagonistic toward the nominee, senators from both parties know now how the hearing will turn out.

"She's handled herself very well," conceded Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the committee's senior Republican member. "She's not rushed."

So far, Sotomayor has stayed completely in control even as the Judiciary Committee's 19 members alternately tried to shake and support her. Nowhere has her self-command been more evident than in her refusal — despite repeated efforts by Republicans and Democrats alike — to offer hints about her thinking on the nation's most politically sensitive disputes.

On abortion, Second Amendment rights, voting rights and more, Sotomayor consistently has steered clear of hinting how she might rule. In part, she refuses to pre-judge a specific case she might see again. In part, she is showcasing her stated intention to "bring an open mind to every case" that comes before her.

"And by an open mind I mean a judge who looks at the facts of each case, listens, and understands the arguments of the parties, and applies the law as the law commands," Sotomayor said. "It's a refrain I keep repeating because that is my philosophy of judging: applying the law to the facts at hand."

Physically, too, Sotomayor has held her ground, despite a cast on her right leg and a lifelong diabetic condition, which requires her to keep a glass of sugary Sprite by her side. Her body language has been commanding. She gestures freely, occasionally touching senators like Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina while in casual conversation.

Hoping to dislodge her, Republicans have repeatedly tried asking the same question in different ways. Sotomayor's comments about a "wise Latina" have prompted at least 15 questions, with her answers hardly varying.

Sotomayor's ruling with the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold New York state's ban on the joined-sticks weapon called nunchaku, likewise, drew question after question about whether she thinks the Second Amendment applies to states. She frustrated them all, insisting the state issue might yet come before the high court.

On abortion, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, noted that the White House reportedly was offering vague assurances to abortion rights groups in May that Sotomayor would be sympathetic to their views.

How would they know that? Cornyn wondered. Sotomayor said she didn't know.

"You just have to look at my record to know that in the cases that I addressed on all issues, I follow the law," Sotomayor said.

The focus throughout has been extremely tight. Though Sotomayor has participated in more than 3,000 decisions during her 17-year tenure on the federal bench, Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats noted that during two days of questioning, Republicans asked her about a grand total of eight cases.

The Senate Democratic Communications Center said that, "Judge Sotomayor has answered more questions more in depth than any nominee in recent history." More pointedly, though, the Democrats noted that Sotomayor was hardly less forthcoming than Republican nominees, including John G. Roberts and Samuel Alito.

"I think I should stay away from discussions of particular issues that are likely to come before the court again," Roberts said during his 2005 confirmation hearing, in words that Sotomayor might have quoted directly.

Philosophically, Sotomayor stressed her respect for precedent and her intention to judge every dispute on a case-by-case basis. Put another way, she was assuring senators that she's no "judicial activist."

"I can only talk about what the court said in the context of that particular case," Sotomayor said, when asked about a high-profile property rights case. "It's entitled to stare decisis and deference. But the extent of that has to await the next cases."

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

Judge Sotomayor avoids detailing her views on abortion

Sotomayor explains her 'wise Latina' comment

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Lawyers group gives Sotomayor its highest approval rating

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