WASHINGTON – Republican lawmakers stepped up pressure on Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor on Wednesday, hoping to paint her as judicial activist who will stamp the court with President Barack Obama's liberal agenda.
On the third day of her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sotomayor rejected suggestions she had been vetted by the Obama White House for her stance on divisive issues such as abortion.
Sotomayor, virtually assured confirmation by the Democratic majority as the U.S. top court's first Hispanic justice, brushed aside comments by a former boss at a New York law firm that she had generally liberal instincts.
Sotomayor, 55, remained calm and flashed sparks of humor as Republican lawmakers pressed the attack, probing her attitudes on race, the law and notions of justice.
You are seeking a lifetime appointment and this is the one chance we have to ask these questions, the ranking Republican on the committee, Senator Jeff Sessions, said during a break.
Sotomayor said she did not accept the activist label -- for herself or any other judge.
I don't use the term because I don't describe the work that judges do in that way. I assume the good faith of judges in their approach to the law ... to come in good faith to an outcome that we believe is directed by law, she said.
Sotomayor's confirmation hearing began on Monday and has revolved in large part around comments Sotomayor once made in which she said a wise Latina might arrive at better legal decisions than a white man -- comments that this week she called a rhetorical flourish and a bad choice of words.
It has left an impression that I did not intend, she said of the quote, which she had earlier described as an effort to motivate young Hispanic students to get involved with the law.
CONFIRMATION NEAR CERTAINTY
Political observers say Sotomayor is almost certain to be confirmed on the Supreme Court, whose nine members serve for life and rule on cases touching the most basic issues of American life including abortion, religion and gun rights.
She would be only the third woman to serve on the court, replacing retired Justice David Souter as one of four liberals facing five conservatives led by Chief Justice John Roberts.
Both Republicans and Democrats have praised Sotomayor's career as a prosecutor and a judge, calling it a uniquely American success story for a woman born to Puerto Rican parents and brought up in a New York City housing project.
But critics have focused on some of her speeches in which she appeared to say ethnicity and gender played a role in judicial decisions -- a red flag for those who fear law could be twisted to suit modern political priorities.
We know her judicial record which I think is fairly traditional ...( but) if she's going to be like Judge Sotomayor in her speeches, that's a problem, Republican Senator John Cornyn said.
Sotomayor has insisted her judicial philosophy was informed by life experience but governed by statute.
The process of judging for me is what life experience brings to the process. It helps you listen and understand. It doesn't change what the law is or what the law commands.
In line with other Supreme Court nominees, Sotomayor remained carefully noncommittal when quizzed on her specific positions on hot-button issues.
She declined directly to answer a question on her view of abortion, saying it was impossible to discuss in the abstract without reference to specific state laws.
But she rejected the notion she had been vetted by Obama and the White House on abortion. I was asked no questions by anyone, including the president, about my views on any specific legal issue, she said.
In later questioning, she also declined to take a firm stance on gay marriage, which has been approved in a handful of U.S. states but is banned in others, setting it up for possible final arbitration by the Supreme Court.
Sotomayor brushed aside comments by her former boss at a New York law firm who said she had generally liberal instincts -- saying he had not read her legal writings for 17 years.
Sotomayor said her experience as a commercial lawyer had taught her the importance of the predictability of law.
But she skated around a direct question on whether she believed Congress had the constitutional right to impose regulations on financial markets -- a move already afoot in response to the global economic crisis.
(Additional reporting by Mari Saito; Editing by Peter Cooney)