Sotomayor: Judges look at specific cases, not broad policies

Sonia Sotomayor answers questions from senators on Wednesday, the third day of her confirmation hearings.
Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor avoided direct answers Wednesday to persistent questions about her personal views on abortion and gun control by repeatedly saying she needed the specific circumstances of a case in order to respond.

Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma pushed Sotomayor to express her opinions on whether certain abortions would be legal and whether a person has a fundamental right to possess firearms and a right to self-defense. Each time, Sotomayor said she would need to know the specifics of a particular case, such as applicable state statutes and other facts. Sensing Coburn ‘s frustration over her responses, she offered an explanation. “What we do is different than the conversations citizens have about what they want the law to do,” Sotomayor said on the third day of her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing. Judges look at the facts of a case and apply the law based on those facts, she said. “It’s not that we make a broad policy choice and say this is what we want,” she continued. It was the second day of direct questioning for Sotomayor in the committee hearing expected to last all week. If approved by the panel and confirmed by the full Senate, she would be first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, the third female justice and the 111th person to sit on the nation’s highest court. Throughout the hearing, conservative Republicans have criticized what they call activist judges seeking to change the law to push a liberal agenda. Democrats have responded with criticism of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts for supporting Republican positions in his opinions, which they called judicial activism.

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Sotomayor has consistently responded to questions about her judicial philosophy by saying she is guided by the Constitution and judicial precedents. Earlier in Wednesday’s hearing, Sotomayor said her controversial statement that a “wise Latina” could reach a better decision than a white man was a poorly expressed point about the value of differing perspectives in applying the law. Under questioning from Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, Sotomayor said the remark she made in several past speeches was never intended to mean that one gender, ethnic or racial group was better than another. Watch Cornyn quiz Sotomayor on abortion » “It is clear from the attention that my words have gotten and the manner in which it has been understood by some people that my words failed,” Sotomayor said. “They didn’t work.” However, she defended the point she was trying to make, and said Supreme Court justices including Sandra Day O’Connor and Samuel Alito had expressed similar thoughts. “The message that the entire speech attempted to deliver, however, remains the message that I think Justice O’Connor meant, the message that higher nominees, including Justice Alito, meant when he said that he considers his Italian ancestry when deciding discrimination cases,” said Sotomayor, a federal appellate judge. O’Connor, the first woman Supreme Court justice, had said that she believed a wise female judge and a wise male judge could reach the same conclusion.

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“I don’t think Justice O’Connor meant that personal experiences compel results in any way,” Sotomayor said. “I think life experiences generally, whether it’s that I’m a Latina or was a state prosecutor or have been a commercial litigator or been a trial judge and an appellate judge, that the mixture of all of those things, the amalgam of them help me to listen and understand.” She went on to say that judges “rely on the law to command the results in the case.” “So when one talks about life experiences, and even in the context of my speech, my message was different than I understand my words have been understood by some,” Sotomayor continued. Share your thoughts on the Sotomayor hearings Later in the hearing, Sotomayor talked about a childhood experience that influenced her decision to become a prosecutor: an episode of the television show “Perry Mason.” She cited one particular episode, in which the fictional defense attorney, played by Raymond Burr, wins yet another case and then consoles beleaguered prosecutor Hamilton Burger by noting it must be hard to expend such effort only to have charges dismissed. “No, my job as a prosecutor is to do justice, and justice is served when a guilty man is convicted and an innocent man is not,” she quoted the prosecutor as saying. “That TV character said something that motivated my choices in life,” Sotomayor testified. Cornyn said Senate Republicans will not attempt to filibuster Sotomayor’s nomination. “You will get that up-or-down vote on the Senate floor,” he told her.

Cornyn and other Republicans on the committee have criticized Democratic filibusters of previous judicial nominees by Republican presidents. The Democratic filibusters prevented a full vote by the Senate. Facing a filibuster-proof 60 Senate seats in the Democratic caucus, Republicans have said they expect Sotomayor to be confirmed by the full chamber. Watch what a former Supreme Court nominee has to say about Sotomayor »