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Sotomayor hearings: Feisty on Day 3

July 15, 2009 |  7:00 am

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On the third day of Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont opened the morning’s session by complimenting her on her composure and knowledge.

Then, Sen. John Cornyn, the Republican who is a former justice of the Texas Supreme Court, returned immediately to her “wise Latina” comment.

Cornyn asked Sotomayor to “help us reconcile two pictures that have emerged during the course of this hearing,” that is, her record as a judge versus the “other record that has emerged from your speeches and your writings.”

It’s important to do that, said Cornyn, since, as a Supreme Court justice, “you will be free to do as you want, with no court to review those decisions.” The “wise Latina” speech, he added, was made by his count at least five times between 1994 and 2003.

Mainly, he wanted to know if she really did disavow those words, as she seemed to have done Tuesday, when she called the phrase “a rhetorical flourish that fell flat.”

Sotomayor, who seemed relaxed and happy when she entered the hearing room, shaking hands with friends and kissing family, did not give a one-word answer, as she might have. Instead, she strove to put the words in context. She was not combative, but she was not quite as docile and retiring as she was on Tuesday. She was, let’s say, feisty.

“I pointed out in my speech that nine white men had decided Brown vs. Board of Education, and I noted that no one person speaks in the voice of any group. My rhetorical flourish … can’t be read literally.”

But, said Cornyn, “you said a wise Latina would make a better conclusion. Are you standing by that statement or are you disavowing it?”

Sotomayor said she had meant that her experiences “help me to listen and understand, but all of us understand. … We rely on the law to command the results in the case. So when one talks about life experiences, even in the context of my speech, my message was different than I understand my words have been understood by some.”

Cornyn kept pushing: “You stand by your words yesterday that it fell flat?” Sotomayor: “I understood that it fell flat.”

And so, asked Cornyn, if what the students to whom she gave the “wise Latina” speeches heard “was the quality of justice depends on the sex, race or ethnicity, is that an understanding that you would regret?”

Sotomayor: “I would regret that.” And, she added, her point was to be inspirational. “We can do so many different things and participate in all the opportunities that America presents. … The context [of the speech] is, ‘I have made it, and so can you, work hard at what you are doing and participate.’”

-- Robin Abcarian

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Photo: Charles Dharapak / Associated Press

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