In the past few days, supporters confronted with the remark have offered a range of divergent tactics and tones, offering explanations that span from apologetic to defiant to suggesting Sotomayor may have been joking.
President Obama himself addressed the bubbling controversy, which is emerging as among the leading GOP lines of attack against Sotomayor, asserting on Friday Sotomayor “would have restated” the comment if given another chance.
But that message – which reaffirmed the official White House spin articulated earlier the same day by press secretary Robert Gibbs – did little to build consensus among Sotomayor supporters, who took to the Sunday show circuit with a cacophony of explanations for the comment, which Sotomayor made during a 2001 speech at the law school of the University of California, Berkeley.
In the speech, which was later published as a law review article, Sotomayor, a federal appellate judge who is of Puerto Rican descent, said: "I would hope that 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."
New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat with a large Puerto Rican constituency, refused to concede that Sotomayor chose her words poorly, predicting on ABC’s “This Week” that “she'll stand by the entire speech. I think that she will show that the speech, when you read it, says rule of law comes above experience,” said Schumer, who as a member of the Judiciary Committee will participate in Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings. Pressed by host George Stephanopoulos, Schumer added “the specific sentence there is simply saying that people's experiences matter and we ought to have some diversity of experience on the court. And I think that's accurate.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a fellow Judiciary Democrat, suggested the debate over Sotomayor’s statement may be taking it more seriously than she intended it, though Feinstein herself seemed torn between defending it or apologizing for it.
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“I’d say that one statement, probably made with a sense of a smile, you know, that ‘here I am, I can do better’ – I don’t have a problem with it. It’s not – it’s not the right thing to say. It’s not the right thing, but I don’t think she meant it that way either,” Feinstein said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. She also called Sotomayor’s word choice “inartful,” though, telling host Bob Schieffer “there’s one word, Bob, in the statement. It’s the word ‘better.’ That a Latina woman who has gone through these experiences – that her views would be better. And without that one word, it’s a perfectly fine statement. And I understand what she meant by it.”
Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, whose recent party switch makes him the junior-most Democrat on Judiciary, played down the comment. He told “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace it “didn’t stand out all that much in context” of the speech. And his interpretation of its meaning echoed Sotomayor’s controversial phrasing. “I think she meant that somebody with her experience has something to add,” he said. “The diversity and the point of view of Latina woman is significant. It adds to the mix.”
Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont tried to turn the tables on Republicans using the remark to question Sotomayor’s fitness for the bench, pinting to former President George W. Bush’s nomination of Samuel Alito to the high court. During his 2006 confirmation hearings, now-Justice Alito said “When I get a case about discrimination, I have to think about people in my own family who, who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of religion or, or because of gender. And, and I do take that into account.”
Leahy, a former prosecutor, on NBC’s “Meet the Press” wondered whether for Sotomayor “to talk about her life experience, is this any different than Judge Alito.” Leahy asserted “it would be ridiculous to think somebody's life experience doesn't affect them.”
Nonetheless, questions about judges’ experiences coloring their decisions will continue to dog Sotomayor supporters. That’s because Republicans have focused their opposition on allegations that she injects her personal feelings into court decisions driven by her policy objectives, citing three pieces of evidence: the “wise Latina” quote, a 1996 law review article in which she asserted the law is fluid and subject to differing interpretations, and a case in which she sided with a Connecticut city that had thrown out the results of a promotion exam for city firefighters because almost no minorities scored high enough to qualify for promotions.
“If the legislative law doesn’t sit with her, she finds a way as a judge to get around it, in my opinion,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on Fox News Sunday. He declared her “wise Latina” comment “troubling,” said it shows she thinks she’s superior and that it calls into question whether “she really understand what America is about.”
“It’s inappropriate and I hope she’ll apologize,” Graham told Wallace. “If I had said something like that – or someone with my background and profile [had] – we wouldn’t be talking about this nomination going forward.”
But Leahy on Sunday hinted the “wise Latina” attacks on Sotomayor could backfire, suggesting that if Republicans didn't temper their attacks, he may accelerate her confirmation hearings simply so that she has a forum to respond.
"I'll tell you one thing that is going to influence the timing of when I will set this hearing is all of these attacks that are going out against her. She can't answer them. As a judge, she has to sit back there--some of the most vicious attacks--being called bigoted, calling her a racist," Leahy said on “Meet the Press.”
"I intend to give her an opportunity as soon as possible to answer those," said Leahy, who wouldn't commit to the White House's request that Sotomayor be voted on before Congress's August recess. "I will meet my timetable...It could be different," he said.