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Broad Praise as Sotomayor Questioning Ends

July 16, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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As Supreme Court Nominee Sonia Sotomayor wrapped up her final day of testimony, even some critics voiced praise for her judicial record.
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JIM LEHRER: The Senate Judiciary Committee completed its questioning today of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. And even some of her critics acknowledged confirmation by the full Senate is pretty much assured.

NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman has our lead story report.

KWAME HOLMAN: On this third and final day of the questioning, Judge Sotomayor won praise from several Republicans, among them, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, who has said he might vote in favor of confirmation.

Today, he had a hopeful appraisal of Sotomayor as he talked about how she might handle a gun rights case if it comes before the high court.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), South Carolina: I don’t know how you’re going to come out on that case, because I think fundamentally, Judge, you’re able, after all these years of being a judge, to embrace a right that you may not want for yourself, to allow others to do things that are not comfortable to you, but for the group they’re necessary.

That is my hope for you. That’s what makes you, to me, more acceptable as a judge, and not an activist, because an activist would be a judge who would be champing at the bit to use this wonderful opportunity to change America through the Supreme Court by taking their view of life and imposing it on the rest of us.

I think and believe, based on what I know about you so far, that you’re broad-minded enough to understand that America is bigger than the Bronx, it’s bigger than South Carolina.

KWAME HOLMAN: In fact, Graham said, as a judge, Sotomayor has been “generally in the mainstream,” but he made clear that on some issues he still has strong disagreements with the nominee.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: And you have said some things that just bug the hell out of me. Last question on the wise Latino woman comment. To those who may be bothered by that, what do you say?

JUDGE SONIA SOTOMAYOR, Supreme Court Justice Nominee: I regret that I have offended some people. I believe that my life demonstrates that that was not my intent, to leave the impression that some have taken from my words.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: You know what, Judge? I agree with you. Good luck.

Judicial record vs. speeches

KWAME HOLMAN: Another Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, said Sotomayor has sounded far more left-of-center in her speeches than during the hearings.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), Texas: So, Judge, what should I tell my constituents who are watching these hearings and saying to themselves in Berkeley and other places around the country, she says one thing, but at these hearings, you are saying something which sounds contradictory, if not diametrically opposed to some of the things you've said in speeches around the country?

JUDGE SONIA SOTOMAYOR: I would tell them to look at my decisions for 17 years and note that, in every one of them, I have done what I say that I so firmly believe in. I prove my fidelity to the law, the fact that I do not permit personal views, sympathies or prejudices to influence the outcome of cases.

I would ask them to look at the speeches completely, to read what their context was, and to understand the background of those issues that are being discussed.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: Thank you for that -- for your answer, Judge. You know, I actually agree that your judicial record strikes me as pretty much in the mainstream of judicial decision-making by district court judges and by court of appeals judges on the federal bench.

Refusing to get into specifics

KWAME HOLMAN: Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn returned to the issue of gun ownership and whether Sotomayor believes it is a fundamental right. But the judge would not budge on her refusal to be more specific.

JUDGE SONIA SOTOMAYOR: Senator, would you want a judge or a nominee who came in here and said, "I agree with you; this is unconstitutional," before I had a case before me, before I had both sides discussing the issue with me, before I spent the time that the Supreme Court spent on the Heller decision -- and that decision was mighty long -- went through two years of history, did a very thorough analysis and discussion back and forth on the prior opinions of the court? I don't know that that's a justice that I can be.

KWAME HOLMAN: From the Democratic side, Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter finished his questioning by asking about televising the Supreme Court's proceedings.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (D), Pennsylvania: Would you tell your colleagues the favorable experience that you've had with television in your courtroom and perhaps take a role in encouraging your colleagues to follow that experience for the Supreme Court?

JUDGE SONIA SOTOMAYOR: I would certainly relay my experiences. To the extent some of them may not know about the pilot study in many courts, I would share that with them, although I do suspect they do know, and will participate in discussions with them on this issue.

KWAME HOLMAN: And Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar closed her turn with a question that South Carolina's Graham had put to Chief Justice John Roberts at his confirmation hearing in 2005.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D), Minnesota: And he asked, "What would you like history to say about you, when all is said and done?"

JUDGE SONIA SOTOMAYOR: I can't live my life to write history's story. That will be the job of historians long after I'm gone. Some of them start now, but long after I'm gone. In the end, I hope it will say I'm a fair judge, that I was a caring person, and that I lived my life serving my country.

Firefighters called to testify

KWAME HOLMAN: By early afternoon, the questioning of Judge Sotomayor came to an end and, with that, an array of other witnesses came forward. They were called by the committee to speak for and against her nomination.

Those witnesses included two firefighters from New Haven, Connecticut, who claimed they were denied promotions based on race. The Supreme Court ruled for the group last month, reversing a lower court panel that included Sotomayor.

Frank Ricci, the named plaintiff in the case, took and passed an exam that would have promoted him. The results were thrown out when none of the black applicants scored high enough to be promoted. Ricci did not mention Judge Sotomayor in his prepared remarks, but he denounced the appeals court decision on his case.

FRANK RICCI, New Haven, Connecticut, Fire Department: Americans have the right to go into our federal courts and have their cases judged based on the Constitution and our laws, not on politics or personal feelings. The lower court's belief that citizens should be reduced to racial statistics is flawed; it only divides people who don't wish to be divided along racial lines.

The very reason we have civil service rules is to root out politics, discrimination and nepotism. Our case demonstrates that these ills will exist if the rules of merit and the law are not followed.

KWAME HOLMAN: Firefighter Ben Vargas is a colleague of Ricci's, and he, too, passed the exam.

BEN VARGAS, New Haven, Connecticut, Fire Department: I am Hispanic and proud of their heritage and background that Judge Sotomayor and I share. And I congratulate Judge Sotomayor on her nomination.

But the focus should not have been on me being Hispanic. The focus should have been on what I did to earn a promotion to captain and how my own government and some courts responded to that. In short, they didn't care. I think it important for you to know what I did, that I played by the rules, and then endured a long process of asking the courts to enforce those rules.

KWAME HOLMAN: After hearing their statements, Republican Senator Graham spoke directly to the firefighters.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: And I just want you to know, as a country, that we're probably one generation removed to where no matter how hard you studied, based on your last name or the color of your skin, you'd have no shot, and we're trying to find some balance.

And in your case, I think you were poorly treated and you did not get the day in court you deserved, but all turned out well. It was a 5-4 decision, and maybe we can learn something through your experience.

Others speak on Sotomayor's past

KWAME HOLMAN: Linda Chavez, head of the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity, also testified in opposition. She described Sotomayor as obsessed with ethnicity and racial quotas and a practitioner of "identity politics."

LINDA CHAVEZ, Center for Equal Opportunity: And I think that activism, that involvement going back decades did, in fact, influence the way she approached this case. So I think it is relevant, and that is the reason I'm criticizing it.

It is not just her one decision in one case. It is her whole body of work, her whole life experience, and the views that she has expressed over several decades.

KWAME HOLMAN: But the judge had advocates in two pillars of her hometown, New York City. Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, Mayor of New York City: Now, I'm not a lawyer or a constitutional scholar, but I think the standard should be, does she apply the law based on rational legal reasoning? And is she within the bounds of mainstream thinking on issues of basic civil rights? And on both questions, I think the answer is unequivocally yes.

KWAME HOLMAN: Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau hired Sotomayor upon her graduation from Yale Law School. He was asked by Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin about his decision to hire her and Sotomayor's now famous "wise Latina" remarks.

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), Illinois: Mr. Morgenthau, when you were alerted about her skills in law school, did they tell you that they had an opportunity here for you to hire a wise Latina lawyer? Is that what you were in the market for?

ROBERT MORGENTHAU, Manhattan District Attorney: Absolutely not. I mean, I took one look at her resume --, you know, summa cum laude at Princeton, Yale Law Journal, and I said -- and then I talked to her, and I thought she was common sense and judgment and willingness to work. The fact that she was Latino or Latina had absolutely nothing to do with it.

KWAME HOLMAN: With Sotomayor's testimony now finished, a Senate vote on her nomination could very well come before members leave for the congressional recess on August 7th.