Gonzales: Empathy Questions To Sotomayor 'Appropriate' Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings have ended, and the Senate Judiciary Committee has delayed the vote on her nomination until next week. Former U.S. Atty. General Alberto Gonzales talks about the hearings, shares thoughts on the confirmation process, and what it would mean to have the first Latino judge on the Supreme Court.
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Gonzales: Empathy Questions To Sotomayor 'Appropriate'

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Gonzales: Empathy Questions To Sotomayor 'Appropriate'

Gonzales: Empathy Questions To Sotomayor 'Appropriate'

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This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Later in the program, we'll meet the newest member of Congress, Judy Chu. She was elected last week to fill the unfinished term of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, and she also happens to be the first Chinese-American woman ever elected to the Congress.

And we'll have more on the arrest of noted Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his own home. The charges have been dropped, but professor Gates says the police officer's behavior was racially motivated, and he wants an apology. We'll have a perspective from a black police officer who has been on both sides of similar confrontations. That's all coming up.

But first, another story we've been following: the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearings on the nomination of federal judge Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court. The hearings are over. The committee's vote on whether to send the nomination to the full Senate is expected next week. As the hearings have proceeded, we've been inviting assessments of the issues raised by the hearings. Today, we hear from a man who was himself widely touted as a contender for a seat on the high court: former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

He is also a former White House counsel and a former Texas Supreme Court justice. He's now a visiting professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, and he's with us now from there. Welcome, sir. Thank you so much for joining us again.

Professor ALBERTO GONZALES (Texas Tech University; Former Attorney General): Good morning, Michel. I'm always delighted to be on your show.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. So first, is Sonia Sotomayor going to be confirmed? And based on your view of what a Supreme Court justice should be, should she be confirmed?

Prof. GONZALES: Well, whether or not she should be confirmed is really, obviously, in the hands of the Senate. I think the provisional - wisdom is, and based upon my analysis of the hearings, I think that she will be confirmed. I think there's no question about her qualifications. I don't think there was any challenge, really, by the Republicans as to her qualifications. The issue that was really the focus of the questioning, as I saw it, was whether or not - does she have the appropriate judicial philosophy to serve on the high court?

MARTIN: And what is your assessment of that? What's your view of that, if you got a vote? Which I recognize you're saying you don't. But if you had a vote, do you think she does?

Prof. GONZALES: Well listen, based on the answers to the questions, I think that yes, she should be confirmed. Of course, there are things that she said in speeches over a course of many years, and in a number of speeches that has raised questions about her judicial philosophy. But if you take her at her word in terms of what she said in response to questions at the hearing, those are the - her answers gave me comfort that, in fact, she would come to the court with a limited role - a view of her role as a judge, deferential to the elected branches of government. So we'll see what happens.

MARTIN: Well, as you mentioned, the issue of race and ethnicity was never far from the center of the action here. And a lot of the questioning focused on a particular speech that she gave in 2001. And she was asked about this repeatedly, mainly by the Republican questioners. And here's the answer she gave to ranking Republican member Jeff Sessions of Alabama, where she talked about that wise Latina comment that we've heard so much about. Here it is.

Judge SONIA SOTOMAYOR (Second Circuit Court of Appeals; Supreme Court Nominee): I also, as I explained, was using a rhetorical flourish that fell flat. I knew that Justice O'Connor couldn't have meant that if judges reached different conclusions - legal conclusions - that one of them wasn't wise. That couldn't have been her meaning because reasonable judges disagree on legal conclusions in some cases. So I was trying to play on her words. My play was - fell flat. It was bad.

MARTIN: Do you think that the line of questioning was legitimate? And what do you think of her answer?

Prof. GONZALES: I did think it was legitimate. Again, there was no question about her qualifications. Really - certainly in my mind - and obviously, the senators can ask questions on any subject that they want. But in my mind, it was - the real issue was, what is her judicial philosophy? What do you really believe is the role of a judge in our system of government? Particularly when you're on the Supreme Court and you are unchecked as a circuit court judge.

She, of course, is bound by precedent, and she knows that her decisions will be reviewed by the Supreme Court. But once she's on the court, you know, will she let her personal views, her personal opinions about issues influence her decisions from the bench? And so I think it was perfectly appropriate - and, quite candidly, I don't think the Republicans had any other - any other course to follow.

That was really the only line of questioning that I think would have been appropriate and deemed reasonable by the Hispanic community. And so, I certainly - I do believe yes, the line of questioning was appropriate. As with respect to her answer, you know, again, she said that the answer was flat. It was probably inappropriate. President Obama said, you know, probably if she had to do it over again, she would say it differently. And so she's provided her answer. My own suspicions are i- s that there's sufficient - certainly, to get all Democratic votes, and I suspect there will be some Republicans who will also vote for her.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Alberto Gonzales, the former attorney general of the United States. And we're talking about Judge Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Speaking of the Hispanic community, they're not the only people who raised this issue.

There are a number of commentators who felt that some of these senators weren't aware of their own biases, if you want to call it that, or their own kind of perspectives on these issues, which came through. For example, here's an exchange between Judge Sotomayor and Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. And they were talking about gun laws and self-defense. Here it is.

Judge SOTOMAYOR: 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 because you would have alternative ways…

Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): You'll have lots of 'splaining to do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Now, she laughed at that, but there were a number of people who were not laughing, and they felt that it was borderline offensive. And there's another exchange with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. There were a number of people who felt that a lot of the line of questioning was patronizing. And I just want to play one of the exchanges. Here it is.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): You have, as a judge, been generally in the mainstream. But I am going to say this: You have earned the respect of Ken Starr, and I would like to put his statement in the record. And you have some - said some things that just bugged the hell out of me.

MARTIN: Now, you've appeared before the Senate many times in a number of capacities, and I just wanted to ask you: Did you feel that some of these gentlemen crossed the line in terms of their demeanor toward her, that they were patronizing?

Prof. GONZALES: You know, I really - I wasn't offended by Senator Coburn's statement. You know, I don't think it was very funny, but I wasn't particularly offended. Sometimes questioning can be very, very tough. I mean, if that's the extent of the roughness of the questioning, then I think, I mean, as a witness, certainly, you're willing to tolerate that kind of - those kinds of statements because in the end, you know you're going to be confirmed. But listen, you know, the senators have the total discretion to ask the kind of questions that they want - hopefully, they're intelligent, thoughtful questions, intended to solicit meaningful information about the views of the judge on important issues that'll come before them, you know, as a sitting justice. But, you know, senators obviously have the discretion to ask questions in any way that they deem appropriate.

MARTIN: Do you think they stayed on the right side of appropriateness, however that's defined?

Prof. GONZALES: I think that, you know, when you compare them to previous confirmation hearings, such as with respect to Judge Bork, clearly, I that think she was treated fairly, with respect. I don't know of many Hispanics who felt that she was treated unfairly. Listen, the questioning should be tough. This is a lifetime appointment, probably one of the most - more important positions in our government. And the questioning should be tough, and she's had many, many weeks to prepare for those questions. I suspect that there was not a single question that was asked that she - that had not been anticipated by the Department of Justice and the White House and that - which she had been prepared for. That was certainly true when I was - my conformation hearing for attorney general. There was not a single question asked at my hearing that we had not anticipated.

MARTIN: And finally, you mentioned Judge Bork. There are those who feel - and I think some of this came through in the questioning - that really, nobody really answers the questions anymore since Judge Bork's hearing, where it just seemed to not be productive. He ultimately was not confirmed. And I wanted to ask your take on this. The frustration that some senators - particularly, I think, Arlen Specter expressed - is that parrying is the order of the day now. And I wanted to ask you: Do you feel that there is something wrong with the process as it now proceeds, that one does not really get answers to any questions anymore, that it's all a matter of what you don't say, and that something needs to be changed?

Prof. GONZALES: Well, I think the conformation hearings are important. They are an educational tool for the American people. They are a learning opportunity for the senators. You can get a sense as to whether or not someone has a basic grasp of basic constitutional law. And I think that's important. That's reassuring to the American people to know that this person sitting at the witness table has a basic understanding of what our Constitution says.

Now if you go in hoping and expecting the nominee to answer questions in terms of how they're going to decide a particular case, then you're going to be frustrated. And - because you're not - a nominee should not answer those kinds of questions. I think senators should come in to these hearings hoping to get a feel as to whether or not the nominee has a basic understanding of the Constitution. And most importantly, they should try to get a feel for how the nominee approaches cases, how they decide the cases, the process of deciding the cases - not the outcome, which they shouldn't talk about. But they should describe how it is that they approach these legal issues, and how they come to a conclusion.

MARTIN: And finally, do you mind if I ask how you felt watching the hearings? As has been discussed, that there were - you were mentioned among the mentioned for those who might have been the first person of Latino heritage to serve on the high court. As we have previously discussed, there was all kind of politics around that, and it never came to be. But do you mind if I ask how you felt?

Prof. GONZALES: Well, I felt a sense of pride. I think it was an important moment for the Hispanic community. But in terms of whether or not do I have any regrets about me not having been on the court, I feel privileged having been appointed and confirmed as the attorney general of the United States. I'm very, very proud of the opportunities that I've been given, and I'm very, very proud of my service. But - so I would just say that's how - that's how I felt about watching the hearings…

MARTIN: Well, also the fact that you and she - you come from very different backgrounds, but you both have in common - you and Judge Sonia Sotomayor come in - have in common the fact that you both have made great journeys in your lives.

Prof. GONZALES: It's one of many great American stories. Her story is wonderful, and it should be celebrated, and it should be told and retold. But I think it's important for your listeners to understand that there are countless stories just like hers, just like mine. And that's a great testament to the opportunities in this country.

MARTIN: Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales served in the Bush administration. He was also White House counsel. He's also a former state Supreme Court justice from Texas. He is now a visiting professor at Texas Tech, and he was kind enough to join us from NPR member station KOHM in Lubbock. Attorney general, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Prof. GONZALES: Thank you.

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