Senate Democrats turned the usually staid meet and greet for President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee into a full blown PR offensive Tuesday, defending Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s record while offering her first public defense of her controversial comments about race.
Democrats are also pushing an accelerated timetable for her confirmation, and are trying to lay the groundwork for a vote before the long August recess, despite Republican complaints that such a schedule wouldn’t give them enough time to scour Sotomayor’s judicial record. Democrats may lay out a hearing schedule before the end of the week, Senate sources said.
The Democratic push – coming as Sotomayor had a whirlwind day of visits with 10 senators – is aimed at building momentum for her nomination, while pressuring Republicans not to slow or block her path to the Supreme Court.
Sotomayor told several Democratic senators, in private meetings in the Capitol, that her comment that a “wise Latina woman” could render a better judgment than a white male judge was part of a much broader speech and that ultimately she was committed to following the rule of law above anything else.
In defusing the controversy over the “wise Latina” comment, Democrats sought to put the spotlight back on Sotomayor’s extensive legal career, assure the public she was committed to following the law and is not an activist judge.
Typically senators are largely mum about their private conversations with high-profile nominees. But Democratic senators, after watching Sotomayor get ripped for the past week by conservative commentators, chose to reveal much more of their conversations from Tuesday’s closed door meetings.
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“What she said was of course one’s life experience shapes who you are,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who Sotomayor cleared to give her first public response on the controversy. “But ultimately and completely … as a judge you follow the law.”
But Sotomayor did not concede that she used a “poor” choice of words, as Obama himself suggested Friday even as he said that her statements had been taken out of context.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who also sits on the Judiciary Committee, said she didn’t acknowledge using a poor choice of words but put in a context for him to understand better. She told him: “’basically it means that’s part of my life experience that I bring to my judgment.’ She said, ‘Maybe it means with this background I’m a better listener, I listen for better things. But ultimately, it’s not going to decide any case for me.’”
“What Judge Sotomayor was saying was, ‘this is part of who I am. … This will be one of the things that I use to understand the people who come before – the cases that come before – but she said in the end that it’s the law that will decide.”
And another Judiciary Committee member, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who lunched with the nominee along with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), said Sotomayor pointed out that her comments in the speech where she made this remark also referenced the fact that Brown v. Board of Education was decided by nine white males, and she argued that her speech should be considered in its broader context.
In her 2001 speech, Sotomayor also explained that the experiences of white men affect how they render their law and that she has worked to overcome personal biases and assumptions to issue fair rulings.
Durbin said Sotomayor told her that her “judgment is not to be trumped by gender and race.”
While Democrats seemed willing to repeat the highlights of their conversation with Sotomayor as part of the PR offensive, Republican senators withheld judgmentand offered skeptical questions over her approach to the law.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said he was "very impressed" with her knowledge, experience and energy level. But he added that questions remain about her approach she would take to the law – even as she told him she “ultimately and completely” would follow the law.
“Some of the writings she has made, some of the speeches that she has made are troubling,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, a senior member of the Judiciary Committee who also met with the nominee Tuesday. “They’d be troubling to anybody who is fair.”
“I think we need to hold our fire until we examine all of these opinions and writings,” said Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who sits on the Judiciary Committee. “I think what this could boil down to -- and we'll have to examine very carefully all of the evidence -- is what this judge's view of judging is. Is it the same as the president's, which I reject, or is it more in common with what past judges and justices have done in deciding the cases on the merits rather their own feelings?”
Escorted by a handful of aides, Sotomayor was armed with talking points for her Senate visits, including telling several of them that the law was “ultimately and completely” the guiding force in how she makes decisions from the bench – even if her background helps guide how she comes to a decision.
Leahy and Sessions are planning to hold a critical meeting Wednesday morning to discuss timing on considering the nominee.
Leahy said Tuesday that Sotomayor has been the subject of “vicious” attacks – including one by Tom Tancredo likening her involvement with La Raza to that of the Ku Klux Klan and Rush Limbaugh calling her a “racist” – and he wants her to come before the committee as early as July. He said it would be “irresponsible” to wait until September to hold hearings since she would not be able to respond to the attacks, but Sessions disagreed.
“I don't think it will be irresponsible,” Sessions responded. “I hope the chairman will keep an open mind on this.”
If no deal is reached, Democrats expect an announcement on the hearing schedule to be issued in the coming days, with July a likely target, sources said.
"It will not be a fair process if they do that," Hatch said, adding that "some might" vote against her if that happened.
“I know how difficult it is for somebody who is nominated, they can’t answer charges, they can’t speak out when they’re a nominee,” Leahy said.