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Supreme Court nominee repudiates racial bias allegation


Video by Carla WESTERHEIDE , Pauline PACCARD


Latest update : 2009-07-15

President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor fought back on Tuesday against Republican charges that she could allow racial bias as a person of Hispanic descent to steer her legal decisions.

REUTERS - President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor fended off Republican attacks on Tuesday, saying she would not let racial bias steer her legal decisions away from a strict interpretation of the law.

Sharply questioned by Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sotomayor—who would become the first Hispanic on the U.S. top court—coolly explained the context for one of her most controversial comments: that a “wise Latina” might reach a better legal decision than a white man.

“The process of judging is a process of keeping an open mind,” the appeals court judge told her confirmation hearing, and said all jurists must guard against internal prejudice.

“I believe my record of 17 years demonstrates fully that I do believe that judges must apply the law and not make the law,” Sotomayor, 55, said.

Democrats call Obama’s decision to nominate Sotomayor historic and have emphasized her long career as a prosecutor and appeals court judge. But Republicans have focused on charges that her decisions could show racial bias.

Republicans have drawn ammunition from a 2001 speech which included the “wise Latina” comment as well as an appeals court decision she made upholding a city’s right to junk firefighter test results which did not produce enough minority candidates.

Offered a chance to explain the “wise Latina” comments on Tuesday, Sotomayor said she was merely hoping to inspire young Hispanics and women to get involved with the law.

“I do not believe that any ethnic, racial or gender group has an advantage in sound judgment,” she said, adding that she believed every person had an equal opportunity to be a good judge regardless of their background.

Obama's supreme court


Most observers say that the strong Democratic majority in the Senate makes Sotomayor’s lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court all but assured—giving Obama, a former constitutional law professor, his first chance to reflect his liberal outlook in the judicial branch.

Political analysts say Republicans have been formulating their attack carefully, aware that Hispanics make up the fastest growing U.S. minority and are increasingly courted by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

But Sotomayor nevertheless faced tough Republican questioning, particularly on the firefighters case where her appeals court decision was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court.

“We were following precedent,” she said of her ruling on the case, allowing New Haven, Connecticut to junk a promotion exam because it yielded too few qualified black candidates.

Sotomayor said the Supreme Court’s move to overrule her provided the legal framework for “how to look at this question in the future” and defended herself against criticism that she might allow any personal biases to influence legal decisions.

“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,” she said.

Different views

Democrats who control the Senate say Sotomayor has both the legal expertise and the life experience to serve on the court, which has been closely divided with four liberal and five conservative members.

That balance would be maintained if she is confirmed as she would replace retiring Justice David Souter, also a liberal.

“I suspect she will be confirmed and I’m convinced it won’t be a party line vote,” Senator Patrick Leahy, the committee chairman, said after the proceedings on Tuesday morning.

Sotomayor faced questions on other hot-button issues, many of which have proved politically divisive in U.S. society. In many cases her answers were purposefully vague as befits a judge who may be asked to rule on the issue in future.

On gun rights, she said she accepted a Supreme Court ruling last year guaranteeing an individual’s right to own guns and said she would keep “an open mind” on the gun rights issue.

Quizzed on her attitude toward antitrust cases, she said she rejected suggestions that she could be seen as either pro-business or anti-business. On abortion, she said she accepted as “settled” current U.S. law allowing the procedure.

On affirmative action, she said she recognized the continued need in some cases for racial preference policies to redress past racial injustices. However, she said she hoped this would not always be the case.

“It is firmly my hope....that in 25 years race in our society won’t be needed to be considered in any situation. That’s the hope,” she said.

Date created : 2009-07-15