Today we got our first chance to hear Sonia Sotomayor respond to charges of racism and bias, as she appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee for her second consecutive day of hearings.
In addressing the "wise Latina" quote, Sotomayor said she made it in the spirit of the equal capacity of men and women to wisely decide cases.
"You've been referred to as being a bigot, and to the credit of Republican senators and the Democratic senators, they have not repeated those charges, but you have not been able to respond to any of those things," said committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the first senator to question Sotomayor and a staunch backer of her nomination.
"So tell us, you've heard all these charges and counter charges, the 'wise Latina,'" Leahy said. "Here's your chance. Tell us what's going on here, judge.
Sotomayor's response: her words have been taken out of context. She said she made the comment in the same spirit Sandra Day O'Connor
"No words I have ever spoken or written have received so much attention. I gave a variant of my speech to a variety of different groups, most often to groups of women lawyers or to groups most particularly of young Latino lawyers and students," Sotomayor said, asserting she had sought to inspire her audiences "to believe they could become anything they wanted to become."
"The context of the words that I spoke have created a misunderstanding," Sotomayor said. "To give everyone assurance, I want to state up front and without doubt: I don not believe that any racial, gender, or ethnic group has an advantage."
"The words that I used I used agreeing with the sentiment that Justice Sandra Say O'Connor was attempting to convey. I understand that sentiment to be what I just wpoke about, which is that both men and women were equally apable of being wise and fair judges," Sotomayor said.
She then went on to parse O'Connor's comment, that a wise old woman and a wise old man would reach the same judgment on a case--certainly, a different statement, at the literal level, from what Sotomayor said in her speech.
"That has to be what she meant, because judges disagree about the legal outcomes," Sotomayor said. "It can't mean that one of them is unwise, despite the fact that some people think that. So her literal words couldn't have meant what they said, she had to have meant that she was talking about the equal value of the capacity to be fair and partial."
So her argument, in short: the "wise Latina" quote was about "the equal capacity to be fair and partial."
The explanation was not enough, by any means, for Ranking Member Jeff Sessions (R-AL). The former prosecutor immediately went after Sotomayor with a tough line of questioning on her statements that personal background affect judgment.
After suggesting that her comment "goes against the American ideal and the oath that a judge takes to be fair to every party, Sessions asked: "How can your reconcile your speeches, which repeatedly assert that impartiality is impossible...with your oath that you've taken that requires impartiality?"
Sotomayor then said she was trying to "play" on O'Connor's words.
"I was trying to play on her words. My play fell flat--it was bad," Sotomayor said, because it left the impression that personal biases are permissible.