WASHINGTON — Republican senators sparred with Judge Sonia Sotomayor on Tuesday over racial bias, judicial activism and temperament as she presented herself as a reliable follower of precedent rather than a jurist shaped by gender and ethnicity, as some of her past speeches suggested.
In calm, low-key and at times legalistic testimony, Sotomayor rebuffed hours of skeptical questions and stuck resolutely to her message that if confirmed to the Supreme Court she would not let personal bias influence her rulings. In the first two hours alone, she said she ruled by applying "the law" or some variation at least two dozen times.
"It's a refrain I keep repeating," she told the Senate Judiciary Committee, "because that is my philosophy of judging -- applying the law to the facts at hand."
She retreated from or tried to explain away some past statements, most notably her much-criticized comment that she hoped a "wise Latina woman" would reach better conclusions than white males without the same experiences.
She noted that "no words I have ever spoken or written have received so much attention," dismissing them as "a rhetorical flourish that fell flat" and that did not mean what critics have interpreted them to mean.
"It was bad because it left an impression that I believe that life experiences command a result in a case," Sotomayor said, publicly addressing the controversy over that line for the first time. "But that's clearly not what I do as a judge."
She added: "Life experiences have to influence you. We're not robots who listen to evidence and don't have feelings. We have to recognize those feelings, and put them aside. That's what my speech was saying."
Still, for all of the buildup, the second day of her confirmation hearings produced few of the anticipated fireworks as senators moved from opening statements to questions and answers. At times, it had more the feel of a law school seminar talking about statutes of limitation and strict scrutiny standards.
Sotomayor stayed cool throughout the grilling and avoided giving direct answers about her views on a number of polarizing issues, including presidential signing statements, property rights, gun control and the death penalty.
Her measured responses were in line with a White House strategy of keeping the hearings as unexciting as possible, a four-corners defense recognizing that only an unexpected development could derail her confirmation by a Senate in which Democrats control 60 of 100 seats.
'Who are we getting?'
Republicans said that as she sought to claim a seat on the highest court, Sotomayor was sounding different notes than she had over the course of her career. "That's what we're trying to figure out -- who are we getting here?" asked Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-.S.C. "You know, who are we getting as a nation?"
"I listen to you today, I think I'm listening to Judge Roberts," Graham added, referring to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the leader of the court's conservative wing. But then, he said, "you have these speeches that just blow me away."
While the "wise Latina" line has drawn the most attention, Republicans quizzed Sotomayor about a series of statements she has made over the years. In a speech she has given at least five times from 1994 to 2003, she noted a colleague's belief that judges must transcend personal sympathies and aspire to a greater degree of fairness.
In the speech, Sotomayor said that she agreed and that she tried to work toward that goal. But she added, "I wonder whether achieving the goal is possible in all or even most cases."
She went on to say: "In judging, I further accept that our experiences as women will in some way affect our decisions." She later added that "my experiences will affect the facts I choose to see as a judge." And while saying she did not know exactly what difference that makes, she said, "I accept that there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage."
But during her testimony Tuesday, she said those speeches were "addressing an academic question" and "intended to inspire" audiences of Latinos and women. And she said she never rendered a ruling based on her personal feelings.
"If you will look at my history on the bench," she said, "you will know that I do not believe that any ethnic, gender or race group has an advantage in sound judging."
Democratic senators used their questions to defend her and turn the tables on Republicans, noting that they took issue with her speeches but for the most part not the 230 rulings she has authored and 3,000 participated in during 11 years on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New York City.
Her defenders cited studies showing that she voted with Republican judges and ruled against discrimination claims the vast majority of the time. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., sought to rebut criticism by noting how Sotomayor ruled against many plaintiffs with whom she clearly had sympathy, like relatives of victims of the crash of TWA Flight 800, which exploded over the Atlantic Ocean in 1996.
Although Sotomayor sought to avoid much discussion of current cases, she said she believes that under current law, restrictions on abortion must always allow for the health of the mother.
Her comments came in a colloquy with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who argued that Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito misled senators when they suggested at their confirmation hearings that such a principle was settled law, only to uphold a federal abortion restriction in 2007 with no such exemption.