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Sotomayor hearings: Nominee takes a punch

July 14, 2009 | 12:52 pm

Jon What just transpired at Hart 216 might have been the sharpest Republican critique of Judge Sonia Sotomayor as Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) clearly articulated the GOP's main concern about Sotomayor and gave this hearing perhaps its defining moment to date.

Kyl first asked whether Sotomayor would agree with President Obama's analogy about judging that suggested there is place in decision-making for empathy for certain disadvantaged groups. But Sotomayor rejected that approach flatly. "We apply law to facts," Sotomayor said. "We don't apply feelings," evoking a grateful response from Kyl. (For a moment, he almost made it sound like they were simpatico. For a moment.)

But then Kyl, a lawyer, got to the heart of the matter, reading aloud several passages from a speech Sotomayor delivered at Seton Hall University in 2003. "To judge is an exercise in power. There is no objective stance. No neutrality. No escape from choice," Kyl quoted Sotomayor as saying.

Kyl is in the Republican leadership in the Senate -- and was expected to question Sotomayor aggressively. He didn't disappoint, although it was clear that he was attempting to be respectful, if sometimes he sounded a bit patronizing. "Let me try to help you along here," he said at one point.

Sotomayor's response was plain.

"I have a record of 17 years, decision after decision after decision," she said. "It is very clear that I don't base my judgments on my personal experiences or my feelings or my biases. All of my decisions show my respect for the rule of law."

Although Kyl's critique was the sharpest and most aggressive of the day, Sotomayor also appeared more comfortable, even joking at times, and more secure with her answers than during a similar exchange with Jeff Sessions earlier today.

"The words I chose, the rhetorical flourish," she allowed. "A bad idea." And she again maintained her words were about the importance of diversity on the bench. "I believe every person, regardless of their background, can be good and wise judges," she concluded.

At the end of the exchange, there was a feeling that Sotomayor had been hit with perhaps the hardest punch she may take. Although more will surely come her way.

Sen. Patrick Leahy called for a break afterward. And Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the Senate assistant majority leader, slammed the narrowness of the Republican attacks, saying it was about "one case and one speech."

-- James Oliphant

Photo: Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., questions Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor during her confirmation hearing before the committee. Credit: AP Photo / J. Scott Applewhite

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