Sotomayor pushes back on racial bias charges

WASHINGTON - (AP) - It was almost as if the judge were on trial.Answering for her own past statements, Sonia Sotomayor battled herway through a grueling day of intense and sometimes criticalquestioning by senators.

But there was little question of the verdict: She's all butcertain to win confirmation to the Supreme Court.

Sotomayor pushed back vigorously Tuesday against Republicancharges that she would bring bias and a liberal agenda to her seatas the first Hispanic woman on the court, insisting repeatedly shewould be impartial as GOP senators tried to undercut her with herwords from past speeches.

There is little doubt that President Barack Obama's first highcourt choice - with solid backing from the Democrats and theirlopsided Senate majority - will be confirmed. Sen. Patrick Leahy,Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said as much - andpredicted she would receive at least some Republican backing.

Sotomayor backed away from perhaps the most damaging words thathad been brought up since Obama nominated her seven weeks ago - a2001 comment suggesting that a "wise Latina" judge would usuallyreach better conclusions than a white man. She called the remark"a rhetorical flourish that fell flat."

She also distanced herself from the man who nominated her, afterRepublican Sen. Jon Kyl asked whether Sotomayor shared Obama's view- stated when he was a senator - that in some cases, the keydeterminant is "what is in the judge's heart."

Republicans sounded unconvinced by Sotomayor's defense.

"I am very troubled that you would repeatedly over a decade ormore make statements" like the one in 2001, Sessions said.

During her first chance to answer questions publicly, Sotomayorstopped short of calling the right to abortion settled law but alsosaid, "All precedents of the Supreme Court I consider settled lawsubject to" great deference but not absolute. Under repeatedquestioning, she said she'd have an open mind on gun rights.

She also defended her most frequently criticized ruling: adecision by a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court ofAppeals last year to dismiss the claim of white firefighters in NewHaven, Conn., who alleged racial discrimination after being deniedpromotions.

On gun rights, Republicans and Democrats alike questionedSotomayor about her view of whether the Second Amendment protectionagainst curbs on the right to keep and bear arms applied to states.

Her response showed Sotomayor - and the White House coaches whohave helped prepare her for the hearings - is cognizant of thepolitical potency of the issue.

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