WASHINGTON (CN) – Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s third day of confirmation hearings unfolded in predictable fashion, with the Supreme Court nominee largely avoiding direct answers to pointed questions on gay marriage, abortion and gun control. Wednesday’s hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee was more relaxed than the day before, interrupted more frequently by jokes and technical difficulties, but most lawmakers stuck to their roles, with Democrats lobbing light questions and Republicans testing where Sotomayor stands on conservative issues.
Republicans continued to press Sotomayor on her “wise Latina” comment and her terse ruling against white firefighters who fought to keep the results of an exam on which minorities scored disproportionately lower. That ruling, issued by Sotomayor and two other judges on the 2nd Circuit, has since been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn prefaced his questioning of Sotomayor’s abortion beliefs by apologizing for the anti-abortion protesters who have interrupted the first few days of the hearings.
“Anybody who values life like I do and is pro-life recognizes that the way you change minds is not to yell at people,” Coburn said.
He then proposed a scenario in which the fetus is deformed at 38 weeks. “Would it be legal in this country to terminate that child’s life?” he asked.
“I can’t answer that in the abstract,” Sotomayor replied.
She said the White House did not ask for her opinion on abortions, but on Tuesday said she believes Roe vs. Wade is settled law.
The subject switched to gun control. In a past case, Sotomayor ruled that New York had a rational basis for banning the possession of nunchucks, a very narrow legal question. Republican senators nonetheless worried that this could extend to guns.
Alabama Republican Ranking Member Jeff Sessions asked if Sotomayor should recuse herself from gun-control cases if she becomes a justice based on her decision in the nunchucks case, but Sotomayor disagreed. “I have not prejudged the question,” she said.
“Would you say the Second Amendment does not allow people to keep and bear arms?” Sessions pressed. But Sotomayor suggested gun control is a state issue, replying, “I’m not familiar enough with the regulations in all 50 states.”
When Coburn brought up gun control, he unsuccessfully tried to get Sotomayor to answer as a citizen. “I’m not asking about the legal question,” he said. “I’m asking about your personal opinion”
But Sotomayor did not change her stance, saying the way a judge thinks is “cornered by law.”
Sessions added a letter from the National Rifle Association expressing its “serious concern” over Sotomayor’s nomination.
Sotomayor also faced questions on her role in an appellate panel ruling, Ricci vs. DeStafano, where predominately white firefighters were refused promotion because an exam they scored well on resulted in a racially disproportionate outcome. Sotomayor chose to uphold a decision allowing the city to throw out the test results.
Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said he was “shocked” by the decision to throw out the exam results, saying the judges relied on scarce legal authority to support their conclusion.
But Sotomayor replied that she had simply followed precedent in making her decision, and said the Supreme Court has since changed that precedent.
Frank Ricci, the plaintiff in the New Haven firefighter case, is scheduled to appear as a witness before the committee during the confirmation hearing.
Iowa Republican Charles Grassley raised the issue of gay marriage toward the end of the hearing, asking, “Do you agree that marriage is a question reserved for the states to decide based on Baker vs. Nelson?” His inquiry referred to the Minnesota Supreme Court’s 1972 ruling that a state law denying same-sex marriage did not violate the Constitution.
Sotomayor replied that she had not looked at the case in almost 30 years, and asked if she could respond after reviewing the case. Sotomayor did agree, however, that she would “apply that precedent to the facts of any new situation that implicates it” if she sits on the Supreme Court.
Cornyn also brought up the “wise Latina” speech that Republicans had criticized in Tuesday’s hearing. He noted that Sotomayor’s judicial record does not reflect her comment 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.”
“I need your help trying to reconcile those two pictures,” he said.
She maintained that the comment was meant to encourage Hispanics, but admitted that she would regret if those she had tried to encourage had misunderstood her to mean that the quality of justice depends on the judge’s sex, race or ethnicity.
Sotomayor’s judicial temperament was again discussed, brought up by Maryland Democratic Sen. Benjamin Cardin in a likely attempt to rebuff South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s reference on Tuesday to descriptions of Sotomayor as a bully. Cardin quoted others in describing Sotomayor as “intellectually tough,” “well prepared” and “hard working.”
Alaskan Democratic Sen. Al Franken, the former comedian who took his seat in the Senate last week, appeared to have trouble leaving his old role behind. He began by mentioning that he and Sotomayor both used to watch “Perry Mason,” a television series about a fictional defense attorney, one that Sotomayor has said inspired her to pursue her legal career. “And here we are today,” Franken said to laughter.
Franken noted that Perry Mason only won one case in the series and asked if Sotomayor could tell him which episode it was in, but she couldn’t say. “Didn’t the White House prepare you?” he asked, prompting more laughter