WASHINGTON (CN) – Sonia Sotomayor easily cleared her last confirmation hearing Thursday with no serious gaffes, and the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking member said he wants a vote before the August recess, advancing what many already believe to be her inevitable confirmation to the Supreme Court. Republicans also took a lighter tone after days of tough questions.
“Your record as a judge has not been radical by any means,” South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham said. He contrasted her to those who “would use this wonderful opportunity” to put forward their personal agenda, a remark that flies in the face of worries Republicans expressed during the last couple days.
Nonetheless, Republicans continued to inquire about abortion, gun control, and Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” remark.
Democrats now have a 60-40 majority in the Senate, enough to avoid a filibuster on Sotomayor’s confirmation, although one is unlikely.
After Senators finished posing questions to Sotomayor, they called forward an impressive list of witnesses. Among them was Frank Ricci, the lead plaintiff in the famous case where Sotomayor upheld the tossing of firefighter promotion exam results that were racially disproportionate.
The Supreme Court recently overturned the ruling, deciding the exam results could not be thrown out, in what is widely held as a change in judicial precedent.
Arizona Republican Jon Kyl, during questioning, asked Sotomayor on her ruling in the Ricci case. “There was no Supreme Court precedent that required that result,” he said, adding that her decision would have allowed employers to reject results of employment exams whenever those fail to the racial balance they prefer.
“No, we weren’t endorsing that result,” Sotomayor replied, wearing a bright pink jacket. “We were looking at a more narrow question,” whether the city was trying in good faith to comply with the law. Sotomayor said the Supreme Court decided that good faith is not enough in the city’s decision to throw out the exam. They must now have substantial evidence of discrimination.
“There is precedent in other courts,” California Democrat Dianne Feinstein said in rejecting Kyl’s allegation. She mentioned a circuit court decision that upheld “exactly the same thing,” where exam results were cancelled because of disproportionate results. “Your case is not starkly out of the mainstream,” she said.
In response to critics that the 2nd Circuit decision was not detailed enough, Sotomayor said the lower court decision was already extremely descriptive.
Graham, who was perhaps the most brutal in his questions over the past few days, appeared to undergo a transformation. He asked if Sotomayor had anything more to say to those bothered by her famous “wise Latina” comment. “I believe that my life demonstrates that that was not my intent to leave the impression that some have taken from my words,” she replied. “You know what judge? I agree with you,” he said. “Good luck.”
Some Republicans continued to express concern that Sotomayor might endanger gun ownership rights, but Graham did not appear to share this. “I think you’re able to embrace a right that you may not want for yourself,” he said. “That’s what makes you more acceptable as a judge, and not an activist.”
Nonetheless, he reminded her to take into account precedent set by the courts in gun control and to consider the importance many Americans place on gun ownership. “I never thought I’d live to hear myself say this. Look at the 9th Circuit,” Graham said to laughter. He noted that its ruling took into account the importance of gun ownership in the American Revolution and the nation’s society.
The National Rifle Association, which expressed its concern about Sotomayor’s nomination in a letter Wednesday, has now said it opposes her confirmation.
Republicans also questioned Sotomayor on her past statement that “international law and foreign law will be very important in the discussion of how to think about unsettled issues in our legal system.” They expressed concern she meant that she would go beyond American law in making legal decisions.
But Sotomayor tried to lay these worries to rest. “You can’t use foreign law to determine the American Constitution,” she said. She described herself as an academic, and said foreign law is a good place to go for ideas. Foreign law is just one of the resources “including Wikipedia,” she said to laughter.
When the witnesses were called, American Bar Association Chair Kim Askew gave her unwavering praise of Sotomayor in her testimony, and mentioned the association’s unanimous decision to give Sotomayor the highest ratings.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg also gave his support, and said Democrats, Republicans and Independents should back Sotomayor’s nomination. “I know because I’ve been all three,” he said to laughter.
New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau also endorsed Sotomayor, who had worked under him as a federal prosecutor. “This judge is uniquely qualified by intellect, experience and commitment to the rule of law to be an outstanding, I repeat outstanding, member of the Court,” he said, and added, in reply to allegations against Sotomayor of racial politics, that “She went right down the middle” in her treatment of different races and ethnicities.
The firefighters who sued, and who came before Sotomayor on appeal, testified before the committee on their story, and said they had been denied “even handed enforcement of the law” before the recent Supreme Court ruling overturning the decisions of Sotomayor and the district court. But neither commented on his opinion of Sotomayor’s confirmation or whether he thought Sotomayor had acted in good faith, citing lack of legal expertise.
It appeared that Sotomayor would have little difficulty passing out of committee, where Minnesota Democrat Al Franken said he intends to vote for Sotomayor’s confirmation, and Alabama Republican Ranking Member Jeff Sessions stated he wants a vote on Sotomayor’s confirmation before August recess, and declared he would