"You'll have lots of 'splainin' to do," replied GOP Sen. Tom Coburn, evoking the 1950s TV show "I Love Lucy" to laughter from the crowd and the judge.
"I'd be in a lot of trouble, then," Sotomayor quipped back.
What Coburn said - and how he said it - was a riff on a Hispanic television character, Ricky Ricardo, whose accent is now widely considered a broad parody.
In the show, the Cuban American bandleader Ricardo (played by Desi Arnaz) would often admonish his scatterbrained wife, Lucy, by saying she's got some "'splainin"' to do. The phrase, "Lucy, you got some 'splainin' to do," has since become part of the popular culture.
Yvette Melendez, a Glastonbury, Conn., woman attending Sotomayor's confirmation hearing to be the Supreme Court's first Hispanic justice, said she winced inwardly when Coburn made his comment but did not feel offended.
"I personally did not think it was appropriate," she said. "But I'm sure he said it as a joke."
The National Council of La Raza responded to an e-mail inquiring about Coburn's remark, saying it was unclear whether it was a badly told joke "or he's just clueless."
"While quoting Ricky Ricardo isn't in and of itself a slur, in this context, it seems wildly inappropriate to say the least," said the group's spokeswoman, Lisa Navarrete.
Coburn's spokesman, John Hart, said Coburn was responding in kind to Sotomayor's lighthearted manner, talking hypothetically about a serious issue, the right to self-defense and the Second Amendment.
"If Judge Sotomayor was offended by Dr. Coburn's lighthearted response, I'm sure Dr. Coburn will apologize to her," Hart said.