Hatch says high court pick Sotomayor not racist, but may be judicial activist

Published May 28, 2009 12:34 pm
Withholding judgment » But Utah senator wants explanations
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Leading conservatives, including radio firebrand Rush Limbaugh and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, have ripped Judge Sonia Sotomayor, the president's Supreme Court pick, for being a racist.

But Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, doesn't buy it.

"I don't agree with that. And frankly, I think it's a little premature and early, because she hasn't had a chance to explain some of these comments that she's made," Hatch said on CNN this week.

It was just one of a number of national interviews Hatch has given since President Barack Obama tapped Sotomayor to fill the high court opening.

The flap centers around a 2001 speech where the judge, who is of Puerto Rican descent, said: "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."

Gingrich and Limbaugh, among others, claim that no white man would be able to get away with such a comment and it should disqualify Sotomayor from taking the seat being vacated by retiring liberal Justice David Souter.

While he won't label Sotomayor a racist, Hatch told Fox News' Sean Hannity that Sotomayor's comment was "not wise language. That's one of the things that worries me a little bit here."

Sotomayor made the controversial comment when she was asked to respond to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's famous remark that "a wise old man and a wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases." Sotomayor argued that past Supreme Courts have voted to uphold race and sex discrimination, later found unconstitutional.

In the same speech she said: "Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see."

While conservative pundits have ripped Sotomayor, Republican senators have been much softer in their criticisms. They have said they are unlikely to filibuster Obama's pick and acknowledge there is little chance her nomination will be blocked.

Many political observers have noted that Republicans would face a major political backlash from Hispanic voters if they declared an all-out war on the first Hispanic nominee.

Hatch told The New York Times that he understands the politically sensitive position Republicans face, but said "that doesn't mean that because the person is a minority and there could be political ramifications we should not do our duty. I think it's incumbent upon us not to be worried about those considerations. Just worry about being fair."

In interviews, Hatch repeatedly promised to be fair to Sotomayor, a veteran judge on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. He described her as having "a very compelling life story" and "an interesting personality" but he also repeatedly said some of her statements were "very troubling," leading him to wonder about her judicial philosophy.

He said if senators conclude that she will be an "activist judge," who relies on her own views instead of the law to make decisions, then they must vote against her nomination.

"I doubt that she fits that category, but the fact is, there are some statements that she's made that are questionable," he told CNN.

Hatch fired off a list of statements on Fox News that he finds objectionable, including a 1996 law review article where Hatch said she endorsed "legal realism" and "legal systems capable of fluidity and pliancy."

"What in the world does that mean?" Hatch asked.

Hatch will have multiple chances to get answers to his questions. Sotomayor has already started contacting senators to set up individual meetings and will undoubtedly have a private chat with Utah's senator. Hatch will have a second chance to quiz Sotomayor at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing expected to be held later this summer.

In 1998, Hatch, and Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, voted in support of her nomination to the 2nd Circuit Court. But Hatch, who only rarely votes against a presidential pick, said that doesn't mean she will automatically get his support this time around.

"I'm withholding judgment," he told CNN. "And, of course, come from a tendency to usually support whoever's president and their picks to the court."

mcanham@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">mcanham@sltrib.com

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