Sotomayor sidesteps on abortion, guns in grilling
Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor determinedly sidestepped volleys of Republican questions on abortion and gun rights Wednesday, keeping her demeanor cool and her opinions mostly private as she neared the end of a marathon Senate grilling on the road to all but sure confirmation.
After two long days of questioning by Judiciary Committee senators, Sotomayor had yet to make a slip — certainly not the gaffe that even Republicans concede would be necessary to derail her nomination to be the first Hispanic and third woman to serve on the high court. She was due back for still more questioning on Thursday.
The appeals court judge, 55, avoided weighing in on any major issue that could come before her as a justice, instead using legal doctrine, carefully worded deflections and even humor to ward off efforts to pin her down.
Appearing more at ease in the witness chair, Sotomayor defused a tense exchange on gun rights by joking about shooting a GOP critic and charmed Democratic supporters with nostalgic praise for fictional attorney Perry Mason.
Republicans, frustrated in their attempts to undercut President Barack Obama’s first high court choice, said they were still worried Sotomayor would bring bias and a political agenda to the bench.
They are Latinas, women of accomplishment, experience — and what might even be called wisdom. And they say there is no reason for Sonia Sotomayor to apologize for suggesting that they might bring special insight to the pursuit of justice.
“Her background will only strengthen the court,” said Teresa Puente, an assistant journalism professor at Columbia College in Chicago and the editor and founder of Latina Voices. “She’s had to apologize for her statements, and I don’t think she should have to.”
Puente and other Hispanic women interviewed around the country said they were troubled by the underlying themes of the questions from white, male senators at hearings on Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
The judge’s speeches — for example, when she said a “wise Latina” might reach a better decision than a white man — have been grist for Republican criticisms. Senators have repeatedly questioned her impartiality and whether she would allow ethnic identification to trump the law.
The novelist and poet Julia Alvarez said in an e-mail that a white man with impeccable credentials like Sotomayor’s doesn’t have to cite his background because it’s the “default” experience, which society has always assumed is the right and impartial one.
“So, if someone like Sotomayor makes a claim for her own background and gender and ethnicity and age and endurance as ‘credentials’ that allow her to access certain ways of seeing a legal issue, everyone raises the outcry of BIAS BIAS BIAS!” said Alvarez, whose parents were born in the Dominican Republic.
“There is a presumption that if you’re white and if you’re male, neither of these things inform your life, but if you are of color or a woman, somehow that is your defining trait,” said Lisa Garcia Bedolla, a professor of social and cultural studies at the University of California-Berkeley.
“What I find troubling is people of color and women are the only ones being asked those questions,” said Garcia Bedolla, who was born in the United States to Cuban parents.
Justice may be blind, but justices are human, each with their own experiences, virtues and philosophies. “We’re not robots,” Sotomayor told the senators.
Said Puente: “She’s trying to say she’s coming from a different background, and that gives you different insights and can help the group as a whole come up with different conclusions because you have more viewpoints to consider.”
The experience of growing up in a poor Puerto Rican family in the Bronx will inevitably shape Sotomayor’s work, the Latinas agreed.
Elizabeth Quintero, owner of a Philadelphia school that teaches Spanish, was born in Colombia. She put herself in Sotomayor’s shoes: “I can see things in the most fair way, because I know what the struggles of people are like.
“That doesn’t mean I’ll be unfair to the other. It means I know all the sides, the good sides and the bad sides, and it will make me see them both more fairly.”
“Somehow in the America of 2009 it would not look right or be right to have nine Supreme Court justices who have the same background,” said Ana Navarro, a Nicaraguan-American who served as a senior adviser to John McCain’s presidential campaign.
“You’d like to think that having diversity in the court makes it a better entity but at the same time does not in any way affect the delivery of justice,” she said. “Would we want to see nine white men debating abortion? Probably not. I think most women feel better knowing there’s going to be a couple of women on there hearing those issues. I think in a country as diverse as ours, where we live in a democracy, it is important.”
Rossana Rosado, publisher and CEO of the Spanish-language newspaper El Diario La Prensa in New York, said the senators seem to be stumbling over something that is obvious to her.
“When you walk into the room and you’re a white male, you get a different reaction than if you’re a Latina woman or a black woman,” said Rosado.
“You have all these Southern senators having to deal with an incredibly wise Latina, and it’s amusing to see them bringing up this issue in all these different ways, and what they seem to be saying is, ‘Is she going to be impartial?’
“Judges aren’t machines. Sonia Sotomayor is wearing pink under her black jacket. She wears hoops as well as well as pearls,” Rosado said, referring to fashion choices that are often popular among Latina women.
“She’s quite elegant in saying that we bring all that, but in the moment, ‘I will do what the law will demand.’”