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Sotomayor: 'wise Latina' a bad choice of words

But during Tuesday's hearing, the Supreme Court nominee demonstrated a comprehensive understanding of the law and jurisprudence.

By Staff writer / July 14, 2009

Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor answers questions from senators during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters

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Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor backed away from a now-famous quotation from one of her speeches, saying her comment about a “wise Latina” judge had fallen flat, and was “a bad idea.”

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She did not apologize, but under questioning by Republican Sens. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and John Kyl of Arizona on Tuesday she conceded that her choice of words may have led to confusion and misinterpretation.

“I was using a rhetorical flourish that fell flat,” Judge Sotomayor told the Senate Judiciary Committee on the second day of her week-long confirmation hearings.

The admission came during a day-long hearing in which senators closely questioned the nominee seeking insight into her judicial philosophy, her ideology, her professional qualifications, and her 17-year-record as a federal trial judge and appeals court judge.

Through it all she maintained a calm and businesslike demeanor while demonstrating a comprehensive understanding of the law and Supreme Court jurisprudence. She was careful to say enough, yet not too much.

She defended her role on a three-judge panel that threw out a reverse discrimination lawsuit by white firefighters in New Haven, Conn. That decision was reversed by the Supreme Court two weeks ago.

She sidestepped questions about whether she believes the Second Amendment guarantees a fundamental right to private possession of weapons at the state and local level. And she declined to offer her personal view on whether the Fifth Amendment’s takings clause allows the government to condemn a private home and turn that same property over to a private developer in the name of economic development.

“I don’t prejudge issues,” Sotomayor told Senator Herb Kohl (D) of Wisconsin. “I come to every case with an open mind. Every case is new to me.”

One issue that has dogged her since her nomination by President Obama on May 26 is a series of public statements that critics say suggest Sotomayor feels unconstrained by legal precedent, statutes, and her judicial oath.

These critics have repeatedly cited her statements in a 2001 speech in which Sotomayor said that she 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 [judge] who hasn’t lived that life.”

The statement was made in contrast to a familiar quote from former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor who often said that she did not view herself as a female jurist. Instead, she said that a wise old man and a wise old woman would reach the same result as judges.

In her 2001 speech, Sotomayor disagreed with O’Connor, saying that a “wise Latina” would reach a “better” conclusion than white men.

Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont first raised the issue on Tuesday. “Thank you for giving me an opportunity to explain my remark,” she said.

The judge said she was speaking to a group of Latino lawyers and law students. “I was trying to inspire them to believe that their life experience would enrich the legal system,” Sotomayor said. She added, “The words I spoke created a misunderstanding. I want to state upfront, unequivocally, I do not believe that any racial or ethnic group has an advantage in sound judging.”

Later, under questioning by Senator Sessions, Sotomayor went further, saying that she was attempting a play on words used in the famous quote from Justice O’Connor.

“I was trying to play on her words -- my play fell flat. That was bad,” Sotomayor said. “It left an impression that life experiences commanded a result in cases, but that is not what I do as a judge.”