White House Says Judge Sotomayor Would ‘Say Her Word Choice Was Poor’ in Controversial 2001 Speech

By Theresa Cook

May 29, 2009 3:57pm

Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller report:

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs walked back controversial comments made by Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor in 2001 when she 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.”

“I think she’d say her word choice in 2001 was poor,” Gibbs said. “She was simply making the point that experiences are relevant to the process of judging. Your personal experiences have a tendency to make you more aware of certain facts and certain cases, that your experiences impact your understanding.”

Gibbs was told Sotomayor feels this way by two people heading her confirmation team, vice president Joe Biden’s chief of staff Ron Klain and Biden’s counsel Cynthia Hogan.

Sotomayor made the comments at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. This week critics including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and talk radio giant Rush Limbaugh have characterized the remarks as racist.

Senator John Cornyn, a member of the Judiciary Committee , dipped into the fray a bit criticizing her remarks as well:  "I think the problem is that when judges begin to focus on themselves rather than the role at hand — which is to interpret the law — they start to get in trouble," the Texas Republican told NPR.              

About her use of the word “better,” Gibbs said “I think if she had the speech to do all over again I think she’d change that word.”

Gibbs read quotes from other Supreme Court Justices that he said conveyed the same point Sotomayor was trying to convey.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told USA Today that of her colleagues who may have minimized the embarrassment of a 13-year-old Arizona girl who had been strip-searched by school officials,, "they have never been a 13-year-old girl. It's a very sensitive age for a girl. I didn't think that my colleagues, some of them, quite understood."

Gibbs also quoted from the confirmation hearings of Justice Samuel Alito, who said “when a case comes before me involving, let's say, someone who is an immigrant — and we get an awful lot of immigration cases and naturalization cases — I can't help but think of my own ancestors, because it wasn't that long ago when they were in that position…. I do say to myself, ‘You know, this could be your grandfather, this could be your grandmother. They were not citizens at one time, and they were people who came to this country.’…When I get a case about discrimination, I have to think about people in my own family who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of religion or because of gender. And I do take that into account.”

Limbaugh today compared Sotomayor to former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke, which earned the condemnation of the White House, when asked if Sotomayor found the comparison offensive.

“She brings a form of bigotry and racism to the court,” Limbaugh said today, “How can a president nominate such a candidate? And how can a party get behind such a candidate? That's what would be asked if somebody were foolish enough to nominate David Duke or pick somebody even less offensive.”

During today’s White House briefing Press Secretary Robert Gibbs responded.

“I don’t think you have to be the nominee to find what was said today offensive,” Gibbs said. “I think maybe the best example of that…is to look at any number of conservative and Republican leaders who over the last 24 hours have specifically addressed the comments of people like Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh. “

Gibbs said it’s hard “to quantify the outrage anybody would feel that you’re being compared to somebody who used to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan.”

-Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller

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