Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor stoutly denied racial bias Tuesday at her Senate confirmation hearing and said an oft-criticized remark about her Hispanic heritage affecting her decisions was a rhetorical device gone awry.
An attempted play on words "fell flat" in a speech in 2001, Sotomayor told Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., referring to remarks in which she suggested that a "wise Latina woman" would usually reach a better conclusion than a white male.
"It was bad because it left an impression that I believed that life experiences commanded a result in a case, but that's clearly not what I do as a judge," Sotomayor said.
Sessions, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, sounded unconvinced.
"As a judge who has taken this oath, I am very troubled that you would repeatedly over a decade or more make statements" like the one in 2001, he said.
On an issue faced by all high court nominees, Sotomayor said the Constitution contains a right to privacy, a forerunner of the right to abortion that the high court first outlined in its 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.
Questioned by Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., she said the right to abortion is "the Supreme Court's settled interpretation of what the core holding is," as affirmed in a separate 1992 ruling.
The issue of abortion rights has been central to Supreme Court confirmation fights for two decades or more, and with her statement Sotomayor came close to saying the issue was settled law but stopped short of that flat declaration.
The committee schedule called for Sotomayor to field questions for hours as senators took 30-minute turns. Democrats were protective, occasionally offering her opportunities to counter her critics.
Kohl noted, for example, that in 17 years as a trial and appeals court judge, Sotomayor had rarely been overturned by the Supreme Court.
And he asked her sympathetically about an appeals court ruling that she joined that was recently reversed by the high court, in a case involving white firefighters in New Haven, Conn. He noted it was a 5-4 decision, and said, "Do you agree it was a close case and could have been decided one way or the other."
She replied, "To the extent that reasonable minds can differ on any case, that's true."