Sotomayor defends her speech

July 15, 2009 12:00 am

, WASHINGTON, July 15 – In a move that may cheer critics of alleged "war on terrorism" excesses, historic US Supreme Court pick Sonia Sotomayor denounced the World War II-era jailing of Japanese-Americans.

Sotomayor, due back before the Senate Judiciary Committee at 9:30 am (1330 GMT) on Wednesday, said that the high court erred by rejecting a 1944 legal challenge to the 1942 presidential order for the notorious detentions.

"It is inconceivable to me today that a decision permitting the detention and arrest of an individual solely on the basis of their race would be considered appropriate by our government," she told the panel.

"A judge should never rule from fear. A judge should rule from law and the Constitution," said the nominee, whose confirmation as the first Hispanic on the bench is virtually assured.

Sotomayor declined to explicitly criticize former president George W. Bush’s actions after the September 11, 2001 terrorist strikes, but said that the attacks did not dent her belief in the need to protect individual rights.

"Did it change my view of the Constitution? No, sir. The Constitution is a timeless document," she said. "Our survival depends on upholding it."

But Sotomayor said the balance of security and individual rights was still a subject of a "continuing discussion" in the United States.

She was responding to questions from Democratic Senator Russell Feingold, who has fiercely criticized what he tars as "war on terrorism" abuses, like warrantless wiretapping and harsh interrogation tactics widely seen as torture.

The Wisconsin lawmaker drew a more cautious response when he asked whether Supreme Court rulings undermining Bush-era anti-terrorism actions showed that "mistakes were made" after September 11.

"That’s not the way that judges look at that issue. We don’t decide whether mistakes were made," said Sotomayor, who allowed that the decisions had found evidence of conflict between the policy and the US Constitution or US law.

Sotomayor also fought back against charges of racial bias and distanced herself from her past remark that a "wise Latina" woman’s heritage might help make better rulings than a white judge.

Sotomayor repudiated the comment, which drew charges of racism from some of her critics, as "a rhetorical flourish that fell flat."

"I want to state up front, unequivocally and without doubt, I do not believe that any ethnic, racial or gender group has an advantage in sound judging," the appeals court judge, 55, told the panel.

Her comments came in response to questions by the panel’s top Republican, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, about her remark that: "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 judge.

"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," she said.

Republican officials and conservative commentators have seized on the remark to accuse Sotomayor, whose family hails from the US Caribbean territory of Puerto Rico, of saying that racial background shapes judicial rulings.

Sessions said he remained "very troubled" and that he worried any such bias would "reach full flower" if Sotomayor wins confirmation to the lifetime appointment.

Sotomayor’s rise from a poor childhood in New York City’s hardscrabble Bronx to the pinnacle of US judicial life mirrors the remarkable ascent of President Barack Obama, who nominated her seven weeks ago.

Sotomayor’s confirmation was virtually assured: Democrats dominate the committee and have, at least on paper, the 60 votes needed to overrun any Republican effort in the Senate to stymie the nomination.

The Princeton-educated jurist would replace retired Justice David Souter and be the second woman currently on the nine-member court, alongside Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the third after retired justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

The court, which is the final arbiter of the US Constitution, is often called upon to decide bitter political disputes on volatile issues like abortion and gun rights.


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