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Analysis: Sotomayor faces controversial questions

Wednesday, July 15, 2009 | 5:47 p.m. CDT; updated 6:13 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 15, 2009

WASHINGTON — Sonia Sotomayor said she's nobody's clone. She's spent a good part of her confirmation hearings showing it — and perhaps offering a preview of how she would carry herself on the Supreme Court.

There were large stretches in nearly seven hours of questioning Tuesday in which Sotomayor lapsed into the sort of painfully parsed answers that seem to afflict all Supreme Court nominees. The goal, after all, is to get confirmed and saying too little always is better than saying too much.

On abortion, she hemmed and hawed her way through questions without clearly stating that she considers the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling that established a constitutional right to abortion settled law.

She promised to treat last year's decision enunciating a constitutional right to own guns as an important precedent but wouldn't tip her hand about future gun cases.

Time and again, she refused to get too specific on issues that could come before the Supreme Court, from property rights to criminal sentencing. "I don't prejudge issues," she told Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis.

More than once, she said she sticks closely to the facts in her decisions. The same plain style is evident throughout those written opinions.

But the 55-year-old New Yorker also offered up some humor, displayed a bit of moxie when she reckoned she was a "really good litigator" and suggested she might be able to work on justices who are reluctant to open the high court to cameras.

She refused to say which sitting justice she thinks she is most like. "Senator, to suggest that I admire one of the sitting Supreme Court justices would suggest that I think of myself as a clone of one of the justices. I don't," Sotomayor said.

On the issues, Sotomayor did not yield an inch. On her contentious discrimination ruling that the Supreme Court reversed last month? Sotomayor said she was bound, as a good judge is, by earlier rulings by her appeals court and the Supreme Court.

Asked repeatedly about the "wise Latina" phrase that's been the subject of so much criticism from Republicans, Sotomayor described it as a rhetorical flourish gone awry. "A bad idea," she said.

But she added that in decisions on the federal bench spanning 17 years, "it is very clear I don't base my judgment on my personal feelings or my biases."

At one point, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina appeared to be trying to provoke the kind of meltdown he said Sotomayor would have to suffer to prevent her confirmation.

After reading several anonymous comments critical of Sotomayor from lawyers who have appeared before her, Graham asked, "Do you have a temperament problem?"

"No," Sotomayor responded softly.

Earlier in the day, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., praised Sotomayor's demeanor.

"If there's a test for judicial temperament, you pass it with an A-plus-plus," Feinstein said.

Before the issue of temperament arose Tuesday, Sotomayor herself volunteered her view about "collegiality" in the context of calls to allow television cameras in the Supreme Court.

"But I wouldn't try to come in with prejudgment so that they thought that I was unwilling to engage in a conversation with them or unwilling to listen to their views. I go in, and I try to share my experiences, to share my thoughts, and to be collegial and come to a conclusion together," she said.

That said, Sotomayor related that she has had positive experiences with cameras in her courtroom and indicated she could be an advocate for cameras if she is confirmed.

"I know that when I worked hard at trying to convince my colleagues of something after listening to them, they'll often try it for a while," Sotomayor said. "I mean, we'll have to talk together. We'll have to figure out that issue together."

 


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