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Published: Saturday, 7/18/2009

Sotomayor cool in hearings


IT'S been great watching Senate Republicans being driven to distraction trying to reduce Judge Sonia Sotomayor to shreds.

Mostly, no matter how many ways senators asked questions on an issue, she assured them that she would rule according to the law and on judicial precedent.

"Senators," she might well have said, "I will not provide you a glimpse into my personal and private views on gun rights, voting rights, abortion, affirmative action, racism, sexism, immigration, or whether it's OK for your neighbor to paint his house lime green and purple, or for the other to keep her hot pink convertible with bright blue hood on the street in front of her house with xeriscaping, not grass and flowers. No sireeee, not me."

Judge Sotomayor has rightly been grilled about her "wise Latina" remark that she made in 2001 with the intention of inspiring young minority law students.

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, had labeled the comment "troubling."

However, it seemed she wanted to convey that we don't all arrive at our various positions in life without regard to our experiences. In Wednesday's hearings, though, she said the remark was a "rhetorical flourish that fell flat. It was bad."

Should it thwart her confirmation? No. Instead, it strikes fear in the hearts of some that someone who doesn't look or think like them could have so much power.

But compare what she said to remarks made by Senator Sessions, which blew his confirmation 23 years ago when President Reagan nominated the then-U.S. attorney from Mobile to the federal bench.

Senator Sessions had labeled the NAACP and ACLU as "un-American." Though he later said he didn't recall making the remark, he admitted describing the civil rights organizations as "communist-inspired" groups that intended to "force civil rights down the throats of people."

In another comment, according to Facts on File, he once said he thought Ku Klux Klan members "were OK until I found out they smoked pot." Though he apologized, Mr. Sessions also admitted that he had said a white civil rights attorney was "a disgrace to his race." Interestingly, the very Senate committee that voted 10-8 not to approve Mr. Sessions' nomination in 1986 is the one he sits on now.

It's a wonder he was nominated, considering those views. Ohio Democratic Sen. Howard Metzenbaum described Mr. Sessions then as "a man who is hostile to civil rights organizations and their causes." Alabama Sen. Howell Heflin, also a Democrat, said, "A person should not be confirmed for a lifetime appointment as a district judge if there are reasonable doubts about his ability to be fair and impartial."

So, was Senator Sessions' grilling of Judge Sotomayor done from the standpoint of trying to learn whether she would be fair and impartial? Or was the intensity of his questions out of frustration that his own nomination had been foiled?

It's hard to tell. But even if she doesn't make the cut to become the nation's first Latina on the U.S. Supreme Court - and so far it doesn't appear that she has given any reason that she shouldn't be confirmed - she's on my list of heroines. Her overall performance this week has been cool and stellar.

We'll soon know whether the committee and whether the full Senate agree.

Rose Russell is a Blade associate editor.

Contact her at rrussell@theblade.com

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