Sonia Sotomayor explains her "wise Latina" remark

Tue Jun 2, 2009 5:20pm EDT

The Politico logo is seen in this handout photo. REUTERS/Handout

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POLITICO (Washington) -- Judge Sonia Sotomayor attempted to clarify her controversial remark Tuesday that a "wise Latina woman" could reach a "better" decision than a white male, telling Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy that "ultimately" and "completely" a judge should follow the law.

Leahy, who met privately with Sotomayor on Tuesday, said he usually doesn't discuss what was said in private meetings with Supreme Court nominees.

But given the attacks that have been launched because of her remarks, Sotomayor gave Leahy clearance to give her response to the public.

Sotomayor told Leahy that what she meant is that people have different backgrounds but "there is only one law," and "ultimately and completely" she would follow the law.

Leahy didn't clarify whether Sotomayor acknowledged misspeaking, as even President Barack Obama has. Leahy said Sotomayor talked about her judicial philosophy, which can be guided by experiences but at the end of the day it comes down to rule of law.

The comments were the first response indirectly from Sotomayor since conservatives began attacking her as an activist judge — with some questioning whether she is racially biased. The Leahy meeting came on a whirlwind day for Sotomayor on Capitol Hill, where she's meeting with several top senators in private meetings followed by photo ops.

Sotomayor did not talk about the "wise Latina" remark in a later meeting with Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.

"We talked about the idea of personal feelings to some degree, how it would influence the decisions, how it would not," Sessions said.

Echoing remarks she made to Leahy, Sotomayor also told Sessions that a judge would "ultimately and completely" follow the law. Sessions said their conversations weren't detailed enough to assuage any concerns about whether she's an "activist" judge.

Sessions committed to her that she would have fair hearings, and said he was "very impressed" with her knowledge, experience and energy level, though he still would rather wait until September for hearings.

Leahy is also pushing for an accelerated hearing schedule, adding that because of the attacks on Sotomayor, it would be "irresponsible" of him to wait until September for her confirmation hearings. He said hearings won't happen in June, meaning that July hearings are likely given that Congress is on recess for much of August.

Sotomayor kicked off her day with a 30-minute meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), followed by meetings with Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee's ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and lunch with New York Democrats Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.

In a brief statement, Reid praised Sotomayor, according to a pool report.

"Everyone in America, I want them to understand that we have the whole package here," Reid said, listing Sotomayor's academic and professional background. "If that wasn't enough, her background is very significant — we could not have anyone better qualified," Reid said.

Reid said that Sotomayor had a "compelling story" and said: "I think your story is so compelling. Americans identify with the underdog, and you've been the underdog so many times in your life."

Neither took questions from reporters.

Sotomayor also had meetings scheduled with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). All except Reid, McConnell and Gillibrand sit on the Judiciary Committee, which is vetting the appellate judge's nomination.

Feinstein said Tuesday she too will ask Sotomayor to clarify her now infamous "wise Latina" remark, and will probably ask her how she views the Constitution's right to privacy — a key precursor question in regards to abortion rights.

"I'd just like to get to know her first, she's got a good work history," Sessions said Monday. "She has a remarkable life story — there may be some other questions I'll ask her, but a lot of that will just be private conversations between us to try to get to know each other a little better."

Confirmation hearings have not been set for the nominee, who is still filling out paperwork sent out by the committee and needs to submit to an FBI background check. President Barack Obama wants her confirmed before Congress adjourns for its August recess, but Republicans are pushing for a final vote to take place before September.

Republicans have questioned some of her rulings and statements, raising concerns about whether she'll bring an agenda to the bench. Democrats have scoffed at the criticism.

"I believe strongly she deserves an the opportunity to deal with the complaints against her, to express her explanations for various things we see in the papers today and be given a chance to do that," said Sessions, whose own nomination to the federal judiciary was rejected by the Judiciary Committee in 1986. "I do think that it is very important that anybody that serves on the U.S. Supreme Court be committed to faithfully execute the law, they show restraint, that they are modest, that they are objective, that they call the balls and strikes fairly no matter what teams are on the field. They don't favor one team over another and so, there are some things that have been raised that are serious that we need to explore sooner or later."

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