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Sotomayor backs off 'wise Latina' remarks

The Supreme Court nominee walks a fine line, acknowledging that her gender and ethnicity influence her personally but maintaining that her record shows they don't influence her court decisions.

July 15, 2009|David G. Savage

WASHINGTON — Judge Sonia Sotomayor seemed determined Tuesday to put to rest the talk of her as the "wise Latina" who might make better decisions than a white male because of her gender or ethnicity.

The statement was a "rhetorical flourish that fell flat," the Supreme Court nominee told senators, saying for the first time that her most famous words had "created a misunderstanding" about her views of the law and judging.

In distancing herself from some of her best-known speeches, Sotomayor said: "I do not believe that any ethnic, racial or gender group has an advantage in sound judging." Although judges are "not robots" and are affected by their backgrounds, these personal experiences do not decide cases, she added.

"That can affect what we see or how we feel, but that's not what drives a result. . . . The law is what commands the result," she said.

"My record shows that at no point or time have I ever permitted my personal views or sympathies to influence an outcome of a case," she added later.

Sotomayor sought to weave a fine line, saying that her gender and ethnicity influenced her life, but that they did not influence her court decisions.

The judge explained that she gave many speeches to young Latino students and that she "was trying to inspire them to believe their life experiences would enrich the legal system," she said.

But Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Sotomayor that if a politician had made that kind of statement, his career would be over.

"If Lindsey Graham said that 'I will make a better senator than X because of my experience as a Caucasian male makes me better able to represent the people of South Carolina,' and my opponent was a minority, it would make national news, and it should," Graham said. "Having said that, I am not going to judge you by that one statement."

Some Democrats noted that other Supreme Court justices also had said that their personal backgrounds would influence their understanding of cases and the law.

In 2006, then-Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. spoke of his Italian American heritage. "When I can get a case about discrimination, I have to think about people in my own family who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of religion or because of gender. And I do take that into account," he told senators.

Two weeks ago, Alito cast a key vote for a 5-4 majority in favor of Frank Ricci and a group of white firefighters who had sued the city of New Haven, Conn., after a promotional test was scrapped. In a concurring opinion, Alito said that a prominent black supporter of the city's mayor had made derogatory comments about Italian American firefighters.

Justice Clarence Thomas cited his impoverished upbringing in Savannah, Ga. "What I bring to this court, I believe, is an understanding and the ability to stand in the shoes of other people across a broad spectrum of this country," he said during his 1991 hearings.


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