WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor vigorously defended herself today against charges that her speeches and rulings show racial bias, telling a Senate panel vetting her nomination that critics had misunderstood her record.
"I want to state upfront, unequivocally and without doubt: I do not believe that any racial, ethnic or gender group has an advantage in sound judging. I do believe that every person has an equal opportunity to be a good and wise judge, regardless of their background or life experiences," Sotomayor declared.
Sotomayor, President Barack Obama's pick to become the high court's first Hispanic and third woman, was responding to sharp Republican criticism of a 2001 speech in which she suggested a "wise Latina" would usually reach better conclusions than a white man without similar experiences.
In her second day before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sotomayor said her background as a trial and appellate court judge had taught her to keep an open mind and not come to any cases with a prejudgment of the outcome.
The 55-year-old appeals court judge said a much-discussed ruling she and two other judges made against white New Haven, Conn. firefighters who alleged reverse discrimination after being denied promotions wasn't about affirmative action or quotas.
"The issue was not what we would do or not do, because we were following precedent," Sotomayor said, referring to her panel on the 2nd Circuit, whose ruling was overturned late last month by the Supreme Court.
Prompted by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Judiciary chairman who lined up a series of friendly questions for Sotomayor to help her counter GOP criticism, Sotomayor said she would ``absolutely'' have reached a different result in light of the Supreme Court's reversal.
Democrats and Republicans alike spoke glowingly Monday about the 55-year-old appeals court judge's rise from public housing in the south Bronx to her judicial career.
"I would hope every American is proud that a Hispanic woman has been nominated to sit on the Supreme Court," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.
But the GOP made clear, despite the Democrats' Senate majority that makes her confirmation likely, it would not let Sotomayor's hearings pass without raising questions about her impartiality. By extension, Republicans also are attacking Obama for what they see as a double standard in calling for her quick confirmation after he voted against President George W. Bush's two high-court appointees.
The thrust of the Republican case against Sotomayor stems from a variation of a line she used on several occasions between 1994 and 2003 in which she talked about personal experience and judging.
"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,'' Sotomayor said in a speech at 2001 at the University of California, Berkeley, law school.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the senior Republican on the committee, said he is troubled by the sentiment he finds in the remarks.
"We remain focused on some fundamental questions about the philosophy of Judge Sotomayor as expressed in her statement on more than one occasion over a period of 15 years," Sessions said Monday after the hearings ended for the day. "And they've expressed a rather serious critique of the classical ideal of blind justice."
Sotomayor offered a polite, brief but firm rebuttal in her opening statement, her first substantive remarks since Obama nominated her in May to replace Justice David Souter, who retired last month.
She explained that her own experiences helped her listen to and understand the people who appear before her. "That is how I seek to strengthen both the rule of law and faith in the impartiality of our judicial system," she said.
In every case, she said, "I applied the law to the facts at hand."
The issue seemed unlikely to provoke the "meltdown" that Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Sotomayor would have to suffer to stop her confirmation.
"And I don't think you will" have a meltdown, Graham added quickly as Sotomayor sat listening, her face in a half-smile.