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Sotomayor, senators make nice -- for now

The Supreme Court nominee talks race and the law in meetings with lawmakers. Sen. Jeff Sessions, who will lead GOP questioning of Sotomayor, calls her a 'delight,' promises a fair hearing.

June 03, 2009|Michael Muskal

Judge Sonia Sotomayor sought to defuse the issue of race Tuesday, meeting with top senators on both sides of the aisle to discuss her nomination to the Supreme Court.

Sotomayor focused on members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the first hurdle in her campaign to move from the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals to the nation's high court.

The committee has yet to set a hearing date on the nomination, but Republicans indicated that it may not be until September. The new Supreme Court term formally begins in October.

The White House had hoped that Sotomayor would be confirmed before the Senate recesses in August, but June hearings are unlikely, Democrats said.

Some conservatives seized on Sotomayor's past comment, widely circulated in the media, that she would hope a "wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

Republican commentators, including Rush Limbaugh and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, have accused Sotomayor of being a racist because of the remarks in a 2001 lecture.

In a televised news conference, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called such criticism against Sotomayor "among the most vicious attacks that have been received by anybody," and said that he was sorry she could not directly answer the comments.

However, Leahy said that Sotomayor, 54, told him during a private meeting Tuesday: "Of course one's life experience shapes who you are, but ultimately and completely as a judge, you follow the law."

Summarizing Sotomayor's comments during the meeting, Leahy added: "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."

Sotomayor also met with Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee. Sessions -- who voted against elevating Sotomayor to the appellate court in 1998 -- will be the principal GOP questioner during the hearings.

"One thing I want to assure you, judge, is that you will get a fair hearing before this committee," Sessions said to Sotomayor in a televised appearance before their closed-door meeting. It will be a "respectful hearing," he added, "and I think we can all learn from it and I think we will enjoy it. That will be my commitment to you."

Afterward, Sessions called Sotomayor a "delight" to talk with and said that he was looking forward to their next meeting. But he also indicated that September hearings were possible because time was needed to study Sotomayor's record.

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michael.muskal@latimes.com

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