May 27, 2009— -- Just a day after President Obama announced he was nominating appellate court judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, the battle over her confirmation has begun with former House speaker Newt Gingrich branding her a racist and saying she should withdraw.
The accusations are aimed at comments Sotomayor made during a 2001 lecture at the University of California-Berkeley. Referring to former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's saying that "a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases," Sotomayor 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."
On Wednesday afternoon, Gingrich wrote on Twitter: "Imagine a judicial nominee said 'my experience as a white man makes me better than a Latina woman' new racism is no better than old racism."
"White man racist nominee would be forced to withdraw. Latina woman racist should also withdraw," Gingrich wrote.
"To understand takes time and effort, something that not all people are willing to give. For others, their experiences limit their ability to understand the experiences of others. Other simply do not care," Sotomayor said in 2001. "Hence, one must accept the proposition that a difference there will be by the presence of women and people of color on the bench. Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see. My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage."
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs advised that people involved in the debate should be careful with their language.
"I think we're satisfied that, when the people of America and the people of the Senate get a chance to look at more than just the blog of a former lawmaker... that they'll come to the same conclusion that the president did," Gibbs said. "I think when people get a chance to look at her record, I feel certain that partisan politics will... take a backseat to common sense and open-minded decisions based on a full examination of the record. And I think that's what every Supreme Court and every judicial nominee deserves."
Calling Sotomayor highly qualified and of keen intellect, Gibbs added: "I've heard a lot of people in the last couple of days... they've mentioned intellect. I'm not entirely sure where people that make that argument... what number they graduated in their class at Princeton, but my sense is it's not second."
Conservative pundit Coulter echoed Gingrich's sentiment on "Good Morning America" today, although she called only Sotomayor's words racist and did not specifically call for her to withdraw.
"It does a disservice to minorities -- to women and minorities -- that we are supposed to be empathizing for," Coulter said on "Good Morning America" today. "Saying that someone would decide a case differently... because she's a Latina, not a white male, that statement by definition is racist."
Others disagree. Democratic strategist James Carville cited Justice Clarence Thomas, who like Sotomayor also has a rags-to-riches story, and has often discussed how his life experiences have shaped him.
"Experience is everything. You want richness and diversity on the Supreme Court," Carville said. "She has a life experience she brings."
Sotomayor was raised in a public housing project by her mother, a nurse, after her father died when she was 9. She graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University in 1976 and from Yale Law School in 1979, climbing her way up the judicial ranks, a far cry from her humble beginnings.
"She has never lost sight of her roots," said Nancy Gray, a friend of Sotomayor's.
For some of her critics, that's not enough.
"Why aren't Democrats choking up over Clarence Thomas or Miguel Estrada?" asked Coulter, referring to the 48-year-old Honduran-born Estrada, whose 2001 nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C. by President George W. Bush was filibustered by Democrats. "Why are we only supposed to weep when it's a liberal Hispanic or a liberal black?"
While Sotomayor -- who was appointed as a judge on the U.S. District Court in Manhattan by President George H.W. Bush in 1992 -- has a limited history of deciding hot-button issues, Republicans have seized on controversial comments she has made regarding race and the courts' role in policy making.
Conservatives are also taking aim at Sotomayor's recent decision in a reverse discrimination case. Sotomayor and two other judges ruled against white firefighters who argued they were passed over for promotion because of their race.
Some critics say the judges ignored constitutional issues in that case.
Republicans have also seized on comments Sotomayor made at a Duke University School of Law panel four years ago, saying these remarks show she is a liberal activist.
"All of the legal defense funds out there, they're looking for people with court of appeals experience, because it is, court of appeals is where policy is made," Sotomayor said then.
"And... I know this is on tape, and I should never say that, because we don't make law, I know. ... I'm not promoting it, and I'm not advocating it," she added.
The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said the senate will give Sotomayor an opportunity to explain her statements and decisions that have raised questions, but called her comments "troubling."
"We need to inquire into that and give her a fair opportunity to explain it. But on its face, that's very troubling. A judge must submit themselves to the law and be faithful to the law and to serve under the law. They are not above the law. And I think it's further exacerbated by President Clinton's (sic) promise to find someone who will use empathy in making decisions. And I think that is a non-legal standard," Sessions said on NBC's "Today" show.
"You look at her record. She clearly puts rule of law first," said Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Schumer and other Senate Democrats have focused on the need for a thorough vetting process, even if its long, rather moving to lash out at Sotomayor's statements or judgments.
A coalition of liberal groups today launched a 30-second TV ad praising the Sotomayor's legal experience. These efforts come at the heel of enthusiastic language from the the president Tuesday night.
"This is a woman who will bring more experience on the bench than anyone currently serving on the Supreme Court. ... Nobody can say she's not qualified to be on the Supreme Court," Obama said at a fundraiser in Las Vegas. "Sonia Sotomayor's life is proof that all things are possible and when she ascends those marble steps to assume her seat on the highest court of the land, America will take another important step toward realizing the ideal that is chiseled above its entrance. Equal justice under the law. So I am inspired by her, I am honored to nominate her."
Obama would like to see Sotomayor confirmed before Congress breaks in August, but even though Republicans like Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, have voted to confirm Sotomayor in the past, Democrats know this could turn into a lengthy battle and raise an array of other issues.
"Democrats will welcome the battle," Carville said. Republicans "have every right to speak against this, and we encourage them to speak out."
From Rags to Riches: Sotomayor in Private
In an emotional announcement Tuesday, Obama praised Sotomayor's life, as well as her academic and professional experience.
"As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, 'The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience,'" Obama said, with Sotomayor by his side. "As impressive and meaningful as Judge Sotomayor's sterling credentials in the law is her own extraordinary journey. ... She's faced down barriers, overcome the odds, lived out the American dream that brought her parents here so long ago."
Sotomayor grew up in a drug-ridden housing project in South Bronx, where her mother worked extra shifts to send her daughter and son, now a doctor, through school.
On her first judgment of conviction for a drug offender in 1998, Sotomayor told the Associated Press, "That emotion will never leave me. ... A deep, deep sense of humility. And a deep, deep sense of, 'There but for the grace of God could I have gone,' and many that I have loved."
Sotomayor's friends said that even as a little girl, the avid Nancy Drew and Perry Mason fan was always persistent and investigative.
"Absolutely fearless. She is not easily intimidated," her friend Nancy Gray told ABC News.
Sotomayor attributes her success to her mother.
"I have often said that I am all that I am because of her, and I am only half the woman she is," the 54-year-old said of her mother at her nomination Tuesday.
Some critics say Sotomayor, who is divorced with no children, can be demanding on the bench and wasn't as collegial as other candidates vetted by the White House.
The concern was enough to prompt officials to call some of her colleagues in the appeals court, and they were satisfied with the feedback.
Those who have worked with her say she sets high expectations and can be exacting, but her former employees added that she is also very nurturing and supportive.
"She has married many of us," said former clerk Liza Zornberg. "She has celebrated the births of many of our children with us."
As Sotomayor starts meeting with key senators next week, Republicans are gearing up for a fight. But most say that despite the opposition, Sotomayor is likely to be confirmed as the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice.
ABC News' David Chalian, Claire Shipman, Jan Crawford Greenburg and Jonathan Karl contributed to this report.