Lawmakers End Questioning Of Sotomayor

The Senate Judiciary Committee wrapped up Thursday its questioning of Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor. Republican senators asked Sotomayor again whether she would rule on cases based on her beliefs, and she assured them she would apply the law and court precedent.

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand in California.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel in Washington.

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor has finished testifying in her confirmation hearings, and Democrats and Republicans see a clear path to vote on her confirmation. Rather than planning any challenges, Republicans say they expect an up or down vote by the full Senate before their recess begins on August 7th.

NPR's Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: Republicans went to a third round of questioning today, but it was clear they'd run out of steam. The recurring theme from the GOP was that the senators saw a, quote, "disconnect" between Judge Sotomayor's judicial decisions and her speeches, particularly a couple of now famous lines from those speeches. Senator Lindsey Graham.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Last question on the wise Latino woman comment - to those who may be bothered by that, what do you say?

Judge SONIA SOTOMAYOR (U.S. Supreme Court 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.

TOTENBERG: Senator John Cornyn summed up his dilemma this way.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): Judge, you know, I actually agree that your judicial record strikes me as pretty much in the mainstream. What is creating this cognitive dissonance for many of us, and for many of my constituents who I've been hearing from, is that you appear to be a different person, almost, in your speeches.

TOTENBERG: That sentiment was echoed by Senator Tom Coburn.

Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): I really see a dissonance about what you said outside of your jurisprudence. You are an admirable judge, an admirable woman. You have very high esteem in my eyes, for both your accomplishments and your intellect. I have yet to decide where I'm going on this.

TOTENBERG: After Sotomayor's testimony, the Judiciary Committee began hearing testimony from outside witnesses, first from the chair of the American Bar Association Judicial Screening Committee, Kim Askew.

She said that in evaluating Sotomayor's qualifications, the committee had interviewed 500 lawyers and judges, submitted Sotomayor's judicial opinions to three panels of practicing lawyers and scholars for review, interviewed the nominee herself and all the judges who've served with her, as well as many of the lawyers who practiced before her, including those made anonymous disparaging remarks about her to the American Almanac of the Federal Judiciary.

Out of all of those interviewed, said Askew, only 10 made critical remarks, and most of those did not practice regularly before the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.

Alabama's Republican Jeff Sessions was skeptical.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): So you talked to those people and you're okay with that?

Ms. KIM ASKEW (Chair, American Bar Association Judicial Screening Committee): We absolutely are.

TOTENBERG: Indeed, the ABA's principle investigator, Mary Boies, said the committee went so far as to read transcripts of arguments in those cases where there was any criticism of Sotomayor's conduct, and to interview other judges on the panels and any lawyers who were in the courtroom at the time. The criticism, she said, were simply not substantiated.

This afternoon, the committee heard from a prominent Sotomayor critic, Frank Ricci, the lead plaintiff in the New Haven firefighters' reverse discrimination decision that Sotomayor joined and the Supreme Court reversed.

Mr. FRANK RICCI: 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.

TOTENBERG: Testifying with Ricci was Ben Vargas, who was the only Hispanic among the white firefighters who challenged the city of New Haven's decision to set aside the results of the promotion exam.

Mr. BEN VARGAS: I became not Ben Vargas, the fire lieutenant who proved himself qualified to be captain, but a racial statistic.

TOTENBERG: The Judiciary Committee wrapped up today, after hearing some 30 outside witnesses. The committee's expected to vote on the Sotomayor nomination in the next week and a half with a Senate floor vote before the August recess.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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Senate Moves Closer To Sotomayor Vote

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor i i

hide captionU.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor on the fourth day of her confirmation hearings.

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

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor on the fourth day of her confirmation hearings.

Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images
Sotomayor greets Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), center, and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), right, on Thursday. i i

hide captionSotomayor greets Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina (center) and Jon Kyl of Arizona (right) on Thursday.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Sotomayor greets Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), center, and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), right, on Thursday.

Sotomayor greets Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina (center) and Jon Kyl of Arizona (right) on Thursday.

Mark Wilson/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:

 

What's More Boring? Soccer - Or A Confirmation Hearing?

 

Firefighters Were 'Devastated' By Sotomayor Court's Ruling

Get A Wrap-Up At Night: Can't follow the proceedings live? Catch up at night with NPR's one-hour wrap-up and analysis of Wednesday's hearing. Hear it live at npr.org starting at 7 p.m. EDT or come back later for a download.

Judge Sonia Sotomayor appeared poised to become the nation's first Hispanic Supreme Court justice Thursday, with Republican senators on the panel vetting her nomination suggesting her confirmation seemed likely.

Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the GOP would not attempt to block or filibuster a vote on her nomination. "I look forward to you getting that vote before we recess in August," he told Sotomayor during her fourth appearance before the committee.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told the appeals court judge that she has said things "that bug the hell out of me," but he concluded that most of her opinions were mainstream and that she is not an activist.

"You have been very reassuring here today and throughout this hearing that you're going to try to understand the difference between judging and whatever political feelings you have about groups or gender," Graham told her as the questioning wound down. Thursday marked the conclusion of Sotomayor's time before the panel.

Focus On Race And 'Ricci'

Republicans spent much of the morning questioning Sotomayor about the role of race and gender in her ruling on a controversial discrimination lawsuit filed by firefighters against the city of New Haven, Conn. In Ricci v. DeStefano, white firefighters contended that the city violated their rights when it threw out the results of a promotions exam because no black applicants scored high enough to qualify for advancement.

Frank Ricci, the lead plaintiff in the case, testified before the Senate panel Thursday. Sotomayor, who serves on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, was on a three-judge panel that ruled against the firefighters. Last month, the Supreme Court overturned that ruling.

Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl began the day's questioning by pressing Sotomayor on why she and the other two appellate judges issued the one-paragraph decision, without addressing the various constitutional issues raised. Critics have seized on the case as evidence that Sotomayor exhibits racial bias.

Sotomayor has defended the Ricci decision, saying that she and her colleagues were bound by legal precedent. Kyl challenged that argument, saying, "You will not acknowledge that even though the Supreme Court said there's no precedent [in overturning the ruling] ... you still insist, somehow, that there was precedent there that you were bound by?" Sotomayor replied that the high court chose to adopt a different test in its review of the case.

Continuing Kyl's questioning, Graham challenged Sotomayor's intent. "Mr. Ricci has a story to tell, too," he said. "There are all kinds of stories to tell in this country, and the court has, in the opinion of many of us, gone into the business of societal change — not based on the plain language of the Constitution, but based on motivations that can never be checked at the ballot box."

Identity Politics

The question of identity politics has dominated the hearings all week. "Do you embrace identity politics personally?" Graham asked Sotomayor on Thursday.

"Personally, as a judge, I don't embrace it in any way with respect to judging," she replied.

Republicans also challenged Sotomayor again on her comment in a 2001 speech before a law school audience at the University of California, Berkeley. In that speech, she said, "I 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."

Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said again on Thursday that it was difficult for him to reconcile Sotomayor's stance as a moderate judge with speeches that many Republicans think shows racial and gender bias.

"I regret that I have offended some of you," she said. Throughout the week, Sotomayor repeatedly said that the "wise Latina" comment was a poor choice of rhetoric, but Republicans continued to question her views on race and gender.

The committee moved on to witnesses Thursday afternoon.

Testimony From Ricci And Others

Testimony began with Kim Askew of the American Bar Association, who said her organization had given Sotomayor its highest rating. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised Sotomayor's independence and sound reasoning. Sotomayor's former boss, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, said her five years as a prosecutor gave her valuable insight into criminal cases and the impact of crime on victims.

Other witnesses included former FBI Director Louis Freeh and former New York Yankees pitcher David Cone, who said baseball is in "far better shape" today because of Sotomayor's ruling that ended the 1995 baseball strike.

Witnesses against the nominee included Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life. She suggested that Sotomayor's time on a Puerto Rican legal defense fund made her "unfit" to serve on the nation's high court.

But it was firefighter Ricci's testimony that generated the most interest. Ricci and fellow New Haven firefighter Lt. Ben Vargas told the committee that they were disappointed when Sotomayor and her colleagues rejected their appeal to force certification of a promotional exam.

Ricci, who has dyslexia, said he studied for months to master the exam. Vargas said he kept photos of his children in the basement where he studied as a reminder that their futures depended on him.

Neither Ricci nor Vargas directly criticized Sotomayor, refusing at one point to say that Sotomayor acted in bad faith in rendering the decision. Answering questions from Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter, the men said they attended the hearing simply because they wanted the opportunity to tell their story.

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