Sotomayor Enters Day Four Of Questioning

It's the fourth day of questioning for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Sotomayor is still being asked about her comments about being a "wise Latina". Sotomayor explained that the quote was a play on words that did not work out, but many conservatives and liberals were just not satisfied with her explanation. Host Michel Martin explores why this has become such a sticking point with Washington Post Editorial Writer Eva Rodriguez.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We're going to move now to one of the biggest stories here in the U.S., the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. She is, of course, President Obama's first nomination to the high court, and she'd be the first person of Latino heritage to serve there. She faces questioning from senators for a fourth straight day today. And she's still being pressed on her frequently quoted comments about how the decisions of a, quote, "wise Latina" would favorably compare with those of others.

Many of those questioning her say they are not satisfied with the explanation she offered earlier this week, that is was a play on words that, quote "fell flat." We've been exploring different views about this issue, whether one's personal experiences should play a role on the bench. Yesterday, we heard from Cruz Reynoso, the first Latino to serve on California's supreme court and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Today, we hear another perspective from Washington Post editorial writer Eva Rodriguez. Eva, thank you so much for joining us. Welcome.

Ms. EVA RODRIGUEZ (Editorial Writers, Washington Post): Hi, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, you wrote a piece titled "Sotomayor's Unconvincing Backpedaling," and in it you wrote that the nominee's answer, quote, "reeks of a nominee who's been prepped exhaustively in how to deflect possibly damaging questions." Is that so wrong?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: It is if you're hoping, like I am, still beyond hope, that you're going to actually in these confirmation hearings get some semblance of the real nominee. Of course, that's not Judge Sotomayor's goal and it's not the White House's goal, and you can't blame them.

Their goal is to get her confirmed. But as someone who has followed the court for many years and just, who, as a citizen, is profoundly interested in what the court does and how it affects our lives, I would love to hear candid exchanges and in earnest between senator and nominee. And of course, what we get too often, and both sides are to blame, is just a political game for political gain.

MARTIN: Well, can I put you on the spot here because you said her explanation came across as dodgy at best and disingenuous at worst. And from that, I take it to mean that you think she does believe that one's personal experiences should play a role.

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: I think it's pretty clear from reading her speeches over the last 10 to 15 years that Judge Sotomayor believes that racial, ethnic, gender identity does play a role and that it's not necessarily inappropriate.

What was disappointing to me about her answers this week about the wise Latina question is that she backed off so far from that answer in a way that I found not credible. And if we're talking about politics, there's no question, you know, you bring your beliefs to the table fully and in bloom, as someone said during the hearings, at some point.

As a judge, you are more constrained, and you should be. And I feel that very strongly as a Hispanic woman we want the laws to treat everyone fairly. But the fact of the matter is that there are many, many cases where there is plenty of room for judges to exercise discretion. I still don't know from listening to her testimony over the last few days what she means and how life experiences may or do come to bear on judicial decisions.

MARTIN: I want to bring up something that Judge Reynoso, Cruz Reynoso spoke to us about yesterday. And I did ask him this question, so it's not like he just, you know, brought it up without prompting. I did ask him whether he felt that there was a double standard on this question of identity, that minorities and women are asked this question when other groups have identities and perspectives that they bring to bear, but they're never asked about that. And he said that he believes that that is the case now, that there is a double standard, as he put it, that, you know, white males are perceived to be objective until they prove otherwise, whereas with women and minorities, it's the opposite. Do you agree with that?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: You know, I do think that there is a kind of double standard in the sense that if you're a woman or a minority, it goes without question that you're going to be asked how your life, how your identity, has influenced you.

I don't think that I would agree with the justice completely on the treatment of white males. After all, when then-Judge John Roberts was going through his confirmation hearings to become chief justice, there were plenty of Democrats who asked him questions about whether he could, sorry to use this word, empathize with the little guy, with minorities, with non-whites who were arrested or treated unfairly in the criminal justice system or in business or on jobs.

So the assumption from those on the left, when questioning Judge Roberts, was you know, you're a white guy, you're not going to understand the plight of some people. And you know, that's not completely fair, either. But the fact of the matter is that I don't recall any senator asking Judge Roberts about how his life as a white man has affected him.

MARTIN: Finally, is there any conclusion we can draw from the way Judge Sotomayor answered these questions in a manner that she's been very outspoken about over the years, but in this particular forum, felt the need, in your view, to backpedal and to stay within this very narrow lane. Does that say anything about our willingness to be honest about race in this country, or is it really a reflection of what the confirmation process has become?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: I think if we were talking about almost any other subject besides race or ethnicity, that we would feel much more comfortable speaking about it. Having said that, I think the confirmation process brings a particular sensitivity to this because someone's job is on the line, right? She answers incorrectly in the eyes of some senators, they'll vote against her.

So Judge Sotomayor has every incentive to play it safe and has no incentive whatsoever to sort of put herself out there on the line. I do think, in the end, though, that having these confirmation hearings are helpful. You get to see your senators in action, you get to actually hear from the Supreme Court nominee and judge for yourself.

MARTIN: Eva Rodriguez is an editorial writer for the Washington Post. She specializes in legal affairs. She joined us from her office in Washington. Thank you so much.

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Thank you.

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