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Senators Grill Sotomayor On Firefighters, Comments

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand in California.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel in Washington, where Judge Sonia Sotomayor is testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week.

BRAND: It's her confirmation hearing Judge Sotomayor is President Obama's first nominee to the Supreme Court. The Democrats have a comfortable majority in the Senate, so her nomination appears safe. Today, she fielded questions from the senators for the first time. And we're going to hear a couple of excerpts now.

SIEGEL: We'll hear about two issues: Judge Sotomayor's comments about the role of life experience in being a judge and her role in the New Haven firefighters' case, Ricci v. DeStefano. In that case, a group of white firefighters, led by Frank Ricci, sued the city of New Haven, Connecticut, when the city shelved a promotional exam that no black candidate and only one Latino candidate got a high enough grade on to be considered for promotion. A trial judge ruled that the city acted legally because it would have faced a civil rights lawsuit by black firefighters if it used the test results.

Judge Sotomayor and two other judges on an appellate panel tersely affirmed the trial judge's ruling. Here's what she told the chairman, Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

Judge SONIA SOTOMAYOR (Supreme Court, Nominee): The question before the panel was, was the decision a - of the city - based on race or based on its understanding of what the law required it to do? Given Second Circuit precedent, Bushy versus New York State Civil Services Commission, the panel concluded that the city's decision in that particular situation was lawful under established law.

SIEGEL: Later, the ranking Republican senator on the committee challenged the nominee and her handling of the New Haven case. Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama alluded to the brevity of the three-judge panel's ruling against the white firefighters.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): Do you think that Frank Ricci and the other firefighters whose claims you dismissed felt that their arguments and concerns were appropriately understood and acknowledged by such a short opinion from the court?

Judge SOTOMAYOR: We were very sympathetic and expressed our sympathy to the firefighters, who challenged the city's decision, Mr. Ricci and the others. We understood the efforts that they had made in taking the test, we said as much. They did have before them a 78 page thorough opinion by the district court. They obviously disagreed with the law as it stood under Second Circuit precedent, that's why they're pursuing their claims and did pursue them further.

In the end, the body that had the discretion in power to decide how these tough issues should be decided, that along the precedent that had been recognized by our circuit court and another, at least, the Sixth Circuit, but along what the court thought would be the right test or standard to apply. And that's what the Supreme Court did, it answered that important question.

SIEGEL: The Supreme Court, she said, applied a new consideration to the dilemma facing the city of New Haven, not just might they be sued, but would they likely be held liable. Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama also confronted Judge Sotomayor with statements that she has made in speeches and academic settings about life experience and impartiality, that a wise Latina would reach better decisions, that policy is made at the court of appeals and that personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see.

Sen. SESSIONS: Would you stand by your statement that my experiences affect the facts I choose to see?

Judge SOTOMAYOR: No sir, I don't stand by the understanding of that statement, that I will ignore other facts or other experiences because I haven't had them. I do believe that life experiences are important to the process of judging. They help you to understand and listen, but that the law requires a result and it will command you to the facts that are relevant to the disposition of the case.

SIEGEL: There was so much Republican concern about her speeches, that later in the day, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, had this friendly advice for Judge Sotomayor.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Don't become a speechwriter if this law thing doesn't work out…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. GRAHAM: …because these speeches really throw a wrinkle into everything.

SIEGEL: Senator Graham said he was concerned about Judge Sotomayor's wise Latina remark.

Sen. GRAHAM: I just hope you'll appreciate the world in which we live in, that you can say those things meaning to inspire somebody and still have a chance to get on the Supreme Court. Others could not remotely come close to that statement and survive. Whether that's right or wrong, I think that's a fact. Does that make sense to you?

Judge SOTOMAYOR: It does. And I would hope that we've come, in America, to the place where we can look at a statement that could be misunderstood and consider it in the context of the person's life.

Sen. GRAHAM: You know what? If that comes of this hearing, the hearing has been worth it all. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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