WASHINGTON (CN) – Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor called her “wise Latina” comment a “bad idea” Tuesday, during the second day of her confirmation hearings. “I do not believe that any ethnic, racial or gender group has an advantage in sound judgment,” Sotomayor explained, but said the comment had been taken out of context. “I do believe that every person has an equal opportunity to be a good and wise judge regardless of their background or life experiences,” she told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Tuesday marked the first day of questioning in the 2nd Circuit judge’s confirmation hearings as President Obama’s first nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court. Republicans were brutal in their scrutiny, but Democrats posed less-pointed queries, often using their time to defend Sotomayor from Republican allegations.
Wearing a vibrant red jacket, Sotomayor refrained from directly answering difficult questions, including inquiries about gun ownership or eminent domain, but did indicate that she believes in affirmative action.
Republicans have consistently expressed their concern over her statement that she “would hope that a wise Latina woman, with the richness of her experiences, would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”
Facing the crowded hearing room, Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions disagreed that life experiences should affect a judge’s decisions. “Every judge is committed to put aside their personal experience and make sure that every person before them gets a fair day in court,” he said.
But Sotomayor denied that her experiences determine her verdicts. “I do not permit my sympathies, personal views or prejudices to influence the outcomes of my cases,” she said, but maintained that life experiences are still an important part of judging.
Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, however, cited Sotomayor as saying experiences do impact rulings. “Our experiences as women and people of color will in someway affect our decisions,” she said in a speech.
Sotomayor explained that her statements had been taken out of context, and that she had been trying to inspire a group of young Hispanics that their different life experiences enrich the legal system, but ultimately admitted, “The words I chose, taking the rhetorical flourish, was a bad idea.”
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham tried to have Sotomayor repeat the much-scrutinized statement while the nation watched on television. “Can you recite it from memory?” he asked, but Sotomayor kept quiet.
“If I had said anything like that, they would have had my head,” Graham said, and told Sotomayor that she was being given a second chance, adding, “Don’t become a speechwriter if this law thing doesn’t work out.”
Members from both sides of the aisle appeared to recognize that Sotomayor is not an “activist judge.”
“I don’t see how you could possibly be construed as an activist,” California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein remarked. And Graham even called Sotomayor a strict constructionalist.
When asked which Supreme Court justice she admired most, Sotomayor named Justice Benjamin Cordozo, attributing it to his “great respect” for the legislative branch and due process, and for his belief that facts drive the law.
“I will consider and apply the law as it is written by Congress and informed by precedent,” Sotomayor said, noting that her 17-year record reflects this.
New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer tried to dismiss Republican worries that the empathy criterion would hinder Sotomayor from fairly applying the law. “Empathy is the opposite of indifference, rather than the opposite of neutrality” he argued. He listed rulings by Sotomayor where, he said, the most sympathetic plaintiffs had not won.
In one such case, families of people who died in a plane accident had sued the plane manufacturer, but Sotomayor dissented from the majority in not granting an award to the families.
When asked to explain some of her opinions, Sotomayor linked all of them to precedent. She was then asked how she would rule from a seat on the Supreme Court, where the justices established precedent. “I don’t prejudge issues,” she replied. “Every case is new for me.”
Of her answers, Sotomayor was perhaps most explicit in stating her belief in affirmative action. “There are situations in which race in some form must be considered,” she said, adding that the courts have recognized it. But she expressed hope that in 20 years, society won’t need race to be taken into account.
She also stated that the decision of Roe vs. Wade is the “Supreme Court’s settled interpretation.”
In a past case, Sotomayor ruled that New York had a rational basis for prohibiting the possession of nunchucks, a very narrow legal question, but one that nonetheless sparked questions about gun control.
When asked if owning a gun is a natural individual right, she replied, “I’m not taking an opinion on that issue because it’s an open question,”
On eminent domain, Sotomayor has ruled against a man who sued because his property had been taken for the construction of a private development because he had failed to file in time.
At the end of the lengthy hearing, Vermont Democratic Chair Patrick Leahy joked: “I realize that sometimes all the questions have been asked, but not everybody has asked all the questions.”