Sotomayor Questioned On Abortion

Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor said Wednesday that neither President Obama nor any member of the White House staff asker her substantive questions about abortion or any other issue prior to her nomination. This was the second long day of questioning for Sotomayor, with more expected Thursday.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor weathered a second long day of questioning today. She said that neither President Obama nor any member of the White House staff had asked her substantive questions about abortion or any other issue prior to her nomination.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports on the tough and not-so-tough questions put to Sotomayor today.

NINA TOTENBERG: Texas Republican John Cornyn led off today's grilling, focusing on press reports that the White House had assured pro-choice groups that Sotomayor would be a Supreme Court justice to their liking. How, asked Cornyn, did the White House know that? Had the nominee been asked questions on this subject?

Judge SONIA SOTOMAYOR (U.S. Supreme Court Nominee): I was asked no question by anyone, including the president, about my views on any specific legal issue.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): Do you know, then, on what basis - if that's the case, and I accept your statement - on what basis that the White House officials would subsequently send a message that abortion-rights groups do not need to worry about how you might rule in the challenge to Roe v. Wade?

Judge SOTOMAYOR: No, sir, because you just have to look at my record to know that in the cases that I addressed on all issues, I follow the law.

Sen. CORNYN: On what basis would George Pavia, who was apparently a senior partner in the law firm that hired you as a corporate litigator, on what basis would he say that he thinks support of abortion rights would be in line with your generally liberal instincts? He's quoted in his article saying, quote, I can guarantee she'll be for abortion rights, close quote. On what basis would Mr. Pavia say that, if you know?

Judge SOTOMAYOR: I have no idea, since I know for a fact I never spoke to him about my views on abortion - frankly, on my views on any social issue. George was the manage - was the head partner of my firm, but our contact was not on a daily basis.

TOTENBERG: Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn followed up with more abortion questions, asking whether the states have the right to define when life begins. Sotomayor dodged the inquiry, saying it would be inappropriate to answer a question that might come before the Supreme Court. But she again noted that as of now, the right of a woman to terminate her pregnancy is settled law under Supreme Court precedent. Coburn then moved on to the Second Amendment right to bear arms, and a question about whether there's a right of self-defense.

Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): Well, I think that's what American people want to hear, your honor. Is it okay to defend yourself in your home if you're under attack?

TOTENBERG: Sotomayor responded that under New York law, like most state laws, people have the right to defend themselves if they're in eminent danger.

Judge SOTOMAYOR: The question that would come up, and does come up before juries and judges, is how eminent is the threat? If the threat was in this room, I'm going to come get you, and you go home and get - or I go home; I don't want to suggest I am, by the way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Judge SOTOMAYOR: Please, I'm not - I don't want anybody to misunderstand what I'm trying to say. If I go home, get a gun, come back and shoot you, that may not be legal under New York law.

TOTENBERG: As that answer shows, Sotomayor seemed to loosen up a bit today. The mood lightened even more noticeably, courtesy of Democrat Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

Senator AMY KLOBUCHAR (Democrat, Minnesota): I've been focusing on how patient your mother has been…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. KLOBUCHAR: …through this whole thing because I ran into her in the restroom just now, and I can tell you, she has a lot she'd like to say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. KLOBUCHAR: She has plenty of stories that she would like to share about you. I thought I might miss my questioning opportunity.

Judge SOTOMAYOR: Senator, don't give her the chance.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. KLOBUCHAR: But I was thinking she is much more…

Unidentified Man: The chairman is tempted, let me tell you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. KLOBUCHAR: She is much more patient than my mother has been, who has been waiting for this moment for me to ask these questions and leaving messages like, how long do these guys have to go on?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. KLOBUCHAR: My favorite…

TOTENBERG: Today also marked the official debut of the Judiciary Committee's only professional comic, Al Franken, Minnesota's other Democratic senator. He spent a good deal of his first-ever round of questioning focused in the weeds of a Supreme Court decision on Internet regulation, and on a recent decision dramatically limiting age-discrimination lawsuits. Then he turned his attention to abortion.

Senator AL FRANKEN (Democrat, Minnesota): Yesterday, a member of this committee asked you a few times whether the word abortion appears in the Constitution. And you agreed that, no, the word abortion is not in the Constitution. Are the words birth control in the Constitution?

Judge SOTOMAYOR: No, sir.

Sen. FRANKEN: Are you sure?


Sen. FRANKEN: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. FRANKEN: Are the words privacy in the Constitution? Or the word?

Judge SOTOMAYOR: The word privacy is not.

Sen. FRANKEN: Mm-hmm. Do you believe that the Constitution contains a fundamental right to privacy?

Judge SOTOMAYOR: It contains, as has been recognized by the courts for over 90 years, certain rights under the liberty provision of the due-process clause that extend to the right to privacy in certain situations. This line of cases started with a recognition that parents have a right to direct the education of their children, and that the state could not force parents to send their children to public schools or to bar their children from being educated in ways a state found objectionable.

TOTENBERG: Just as the assembled press corps was about to give up on the serious, new Minnesota senator, he observed that, like Sotomayor, he too had been a fan of the "Perry Mason" show decades ago. What, asked Franken, is the name of the one case that Mason lost and District Attorney Hamilton Burger won?

Judge SOTOMAYOR: I know that I should remember the name of it, but I haven't looked at the episode.

Sen. FRANKEN: Didn't the White House prepare you for…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. FRANKEN: …for that?

TOTENBERG: At that, Chairman Patrick Leahy asked Franken which episode that was. I don't know, lamented the newly minted senator, that's why I asked. Shortly after that, the audio went dead on Chairman Leahy's mic. Said Franken, I think mine works, I'll change places with you. Dead-panned Republican Jeff Sessions, that's the quickest rise of any senator in history.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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Sotomayor Shies Away From Hot-Button Issues

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor i i

hide captionSupreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor answers a question from Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas on the third day of her confirmation hearings.

Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor

Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor answers a question from Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas on the third day of her confirmation hearings.

Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

Get A Wrap-Up: Can't follow the proceedings live? Listen to NPR's one-hour wrap-up by clicking the link above now or come back later for a download.

Sen. Sessions greets Sotomayor. i i

hide captionDespite vigorously questioning the Supreme Court nominee Tuesday, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, gives Sotomayor a warm welcome at the beginning of hearings Wednesday.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Sen. Sessions greets Sotomayor.

Despite vigorously questioning the Supreme Court nominee Tuesday, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, gives Sotomayor a warm welcome at the beginning of hearings Wednesday.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

On The Blog

NPR's news blog, The Two-Way, will be monitoring the hearings for key moments and news.

Recent posts include:


'Wise Latina' Subject Returns On Day Three of Sotomayor Hearing


Sotomayor Vs. Nunchuks


Sotomayor On Privacy And The Right To An Abortion

From abortion and gun rights to gay marriage and assisted suicide, Judge Sonia Sotomayor on Wednesday repeatedly deflected questions on controversial issues from senators vetting her Supreme Court nomination.

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter — a Republican-turned-Democrat — asked Sotomayor whether Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that established abortion rights, had "added weight" as legal precedent. Sotomayor replied that in subsequent cases, the high court had upheld the core holding of Roe.

Until he switched to the Democratic Party in April, Specter was the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He is also a former chairman.

Specter also addressed the controversy that has dominated the first three days of Sotomayor's confirmation hearings: her comments that a "wise Latina" judge might reach a better conclusion in some cases than a white male who hasn't lived that life. He dismissed his former party members' focus on the remarks as making "a mountain out of a molehill."

"The expectation would be that a woman would want to assert her competency in a country which denied women the right to vote for decades," he said.

Specter's admonition aside, ranking Republican Jeff Sessions of Alabama returned to the "wise Latina" issue Wednesday afternoon, as senators began a second round of questioning. "You seem to say in your speech that backgrounds can affect how you rule," Sessions said, as he once again asked Sotomayor to discuss her approach to objectivity on the bench.

'Two Pictures' Of The Judge?

Earlier Wednesday, Sotomayor told Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, "It is clear from the attention that my words have gotten and the manner in which it has been understood from some people that my words failed."

Cornyn said it is difficult to reconcile "two pictures that I think have emerged during the course of this hearing." One picture, Cornyn said, is of a moderate judge who often agrees with her colleagues on the bench. The other picture, from Sotomayor's speeches and other writings, has given Republicans concern.

As Cornyn told the nominee, "You will be free as a United States Supreme Court justice to basically do what you want" — which is why many Republicans have looked to Sotomayor's comments off the bench as an indication of the kind of Supreme Court justice she may be.

Still, Cornyn gave Sotomayor more reason to believe she will be confirmed, saying a filibuster "is not going to happen to you, if I have anything to say about it. You will get that up or down vote on the Senate floor."

Abortion Redux

Specter was one of several senators to question Sotomayor on her views on abortion rights — something she declined to discuss in detail, saying she would not discuss "abstract" potential cases.

Sotomayor confirmed that neither President Obama nor any other White House staff asked her position on abortion before nominating her to the high court. "I was asked no question by anyone, including the president, about my views on any specific legal issue," she said.

On Tuesday, she told senators that she believes the Supreme Court's two landmark decisions on abortion rights — Roe and 1992's Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania vs. Casey — are "settled precedent." Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito called those cases precedents deserving of respect during their confirmation hearings.

When Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn on Wednesday presented Sotomayor with a hypothetical scenario involving abortion rights, Sotmayor replied: "I can't answer your hypothetical, because I can't look at it as an abstract without knowing what state laws exist on this issue."

Hot-Button Issues

Though Specter is now a Democrat, he was vigorous in his questioning of the nominee.

He probed Sotomayor's views on the separation of powers. And he expressed frustration with her answer to his inquiry about why the Supreme Court declined to hear a case accusing the National Security Agency of illegally wiretapping Americans' communications with foreigners.

Sotomayor suggested that perhaps there was a "procedural bar" to the high court answering the legal questions raised by the case. "You've had weeks to mull that over, because I gave you notice," Specter said, clearly flustered, then added, "Well, I can tell you're not going to answer. Let me move on."

In response to questions about her views on other controversial social hot-button issues such as assisted suicide and gun rights, Sotomayor said she would follow court precedent.

Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley asked Sotomayor whether she agreed that it should be up to the states to decide on the legal status of gay marriage. She declined to answer, citing pending cases before the courts. Iowa is one of a handful of states that have legalized same-sex marriage.

Revisiting 'Ricci,' With Firefighters In Attendance

In an exchange with Cornyn, Sotomayor again tried to justify her decision in one of the most controversial cases she has heard in her 17 years as a judge — Ricci v. DeStefano. A three-judge panel that included Sotomayor ruled against a group of white firefighters who had sued the city of New Haven, Conn., for throwing out a promotions exam when no black firefighters qualified. The Supreme Court recently overturned that ruling.

Sotomayor said her panel evaluated the standard the city of New Haven used in deciding to throw out the exam. The city "made a choice under that existing law," the nominee said. "The Supreme Court, in its decision, set a new standard," she said.

As the nominee spoke, several New Haven firefighters sat in the audience of the hearing room.

The first three days of hearings have brought no dramatic fireworks. Sotomayor's demeanor was understated and slow. She rarely revealed more about her judicial philosophy than necessary. While Democrats frequently returned to the nominee's record as a judge, Republicans delved into her speeches and other comments off the bench.

The hearings continue Thursday, when the Senate panel is set to hear witnesses.



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