WASHINGTON (AP) - Judge Sonia Sotomayor on Tuesday countered
Republican charges that she would let her background dictate her
rulings as Americans signaled a favorable first impression of
President Barack Obama's first Supreme Court choice.
A new Associated Press-GfK poll suggested that Americans have a
more positive view of her than they did of any of former President
George W. Bush's nominees to the high court. Half backed her
As Sotomayor made her Senate debut with a series of private
meetings, Republicans said they would prefer holding hearings on
her nomination in September, which could cloud the speedy
summertime confirmation Obama wants.
Sotomayor, who would be the high court's first Hispanic and its
third woman, told senators she would follow the law as a judge
without letting her life experiences inappropriately influence her
"Ultimately and completely, a judge has to follow the law no
matter what their upbringing has been," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.,
the Judiciary Committee chairman, quoted the nominee as saying in
their closed-door session.
Republicans are questioning how she would apply the law, noting
her remark in 2001 that she hoped her decisions as a "wise
Latina" would be better than those of a white male who hadn't had
the same experiences. Obama has said she misspoke; some Republicans have called the comment racist.
Leahy, hoping to shepherd a smooth and quick confirmation for
Sotomayor, asked her what she meant by her 2001 comment and said
the judge told him: "Of course one's life experience shapes who
you are, but ... as a judge, you follow the law."
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the
committee, said Sotomayor used similar words with him as well, but
he appeared to come away from the meetings unconvinced about her
approach and whether she would be an "activist" who tried to set
policy from the bench.
"We talked about the idea and the concept of personal feelings
and ... how that influences a decision, and how it should not,"
Sessions said, declining to elaborate on the private discussion.
Sessions, who is to meet Wednesday with Leahy to discuss scheduling
Sotomayor's confirmation proceedings, said he thought hearings
should wait until September - more than a month after Obama and
Senate Democrats had hoped to have Sotomayor confirmed.
The exchanges came as Sotomayor rushed from one hotly
anticipated meeting to another on Capitol Hill - 10 in all -
visiting senators who will decide her future. She meets 10 more
In public, the nominee and senators were all grins and polite
exchanges. Sotomayor chatted with Leahy about his grandchildren and
smiled demurely as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid praised her.
Sessions called their talk "a delight."
But behind closed doors, they touched on the weightiest matters
of the law and judging.
Democrats praise Sotomayor's life story as the New York-born
daughter of Puerto Rican parents who was reared in a housing
project and went on to Princeton and Yale before ascending to the
highest legal echelons.
"We have the whole package here," said Reid, D-Nev. "America
identifies with the underdog, and you've been an underdog many
times in your life, but always the top dog."
In the new poll, half said she should be seated on the court
while 22 percent opposed her confirmation. About a third had a
favorable view of Sotomayor while 18 percent viewed her
Questioned about affirmative action, 63 percent support it for
women and fewer, 56 percent, favor affirmative action for racial or
ethnic minorities. The poll did not define affirmative action.
She was looked upon more positively than any of three Supreme
Court nominees Bush put forward over four months in 2005: Chief
Justice John Roberts, Justice Samuel Alito and Harriet Miers, who
withdrew from consideration.
Roberts, the most popular of the three in polling at the time,
was supported for confirmation by 47 percent, and 25 percent had a
favorable impression of him.
Sotomayor's 2001 speech has inspired sharp rhetoric from some
Republicans. Radio host Rush Limbaugh and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have both branded Sotomayor a racist, and Limbaugh said choosing her for the high court would be like nominating former Ku
Klux Klan leader David Duke.
Leahy called the criticism "among the most vicious attacks that
have been received by anybody" and said given the tone, it would
be irresponsible to wait until September for hearings that will
give her a chance to respond.
Democrats hope to begin the sessions next month, which would
meet Obama's goal of having her confirmed before the Senate departs
in early August for a monthlong vacation.
But Reid said while Democrats want to hold hearings "as quickly
as we can," they would not seek to impose "arbitrary deadlines."
He sidestepped questions about her past decisions, telling
reporters that he's never read any of the hundreds she's written
during her 17 years as a federal judge. And, he added, "if I'm
fortunate before we end this, I won't have to read one of them."
Democrats hold 59 votes in the Senate - more than enough to win
Sotomayor's confirmation - but short of the 60 it would take to
advance the nomination should Republicans try to block it. Leading
Republicans including Sessions have said they don't see doing so,
but they are facing calls from conservative leaders to try to
prolong the process by engaging in a long debate on the Senate
While GOP senators have steered clear of tough language, they
have in their own way questioned whether Sotomayor would bring a
personal agenda to the bench.
"We need to hold our fire until we examine all of these
opinions and writings," said Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the No. 2
Republican. "The one clear thing that is becoming an issue ... is
the question of the basis for making decisions."
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., asked Sotomayor
about abortion - a hot-button issue on which she has not ruled,
leaving interest groups on both sides wondering about her position.
Feinstein declined to describe Sotomayor's response, saying the
issue should be addressed in public, but she hinted that she
believes the judge would uphold abortion rights, established in the
1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
"She's a woman who is well-steeped in the law, and well-steeped
in precedent, and I believe that she has a real respect for
precedent," Feinstein said.
Leahy told reporters he asked the judge whether he could repeat
publicly what she told him privately during their meeting about how
her personal experiences would shape her rulings.
Leahy quoted Sotomayor as saying, "There's not one law for one
race or another. There's not one law for one color or another.
There's not one law for rich, a different one for poor. There's
only one law."