Sotomayor's Questionnaire Delivered to Senate

Sonia Sotomayor's past remarks fuel debate over gender and the judicial process.

June 5, 2009, 9:53 AM

June 5, 2009 -- The White House delivered Judge Sonia Sotomayor's questionnaire to the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday as her nomination to the Supreme Court continued to trigger a larger debate about gender and the judicial process.

And as committee members parse through the 173-pages of documentation, controversy swirls surrounding past comments made by the federal appellate judge relating to gender and ethnicity.

Sotomayor is already under fire for 2001 remarks made during a diversity lecture at the University of California at Berkeley, when she said, "I would hope that a wise Latino 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."

Sotomayor's Senate questionnaire reveals she made that point more than once.

In a 1994 speech on women in the judiciary, she said she hoped "a wise woman with the richness of her experience would, more often than not, reach a better conclusion."

These newly revealed comments appear as part of a recurring theme in Sotomayor's speech-giving history and only fuel the debate on whether gender matters in how judges make decisions.

Sandra Day O'Connor, the court's first woman justice, didn't believe it did.

"I can't see, on the issues that we address at the court, that a wise old woman is going to decide a case differently than a wise old man," O'Connor said.

But Sotomayor has specifically said she doesn't agree with O'Connor and that women, because of their experiences, are better.

"Better," Sotomayor said in that same 1994 speech, "will mean a more compassionate and caring conclusion."

On the court, O'Connor did ask how cases would affect women. In the 1996 argument of Maryland v. Wilson O'Connor challenged a lawyer who argued that police should be able to detain passengers on the roadway while they searched the driver's car.

"Suppose it's a driving snowstorm, or a blinding rainstorm, and the passenger is a mother with a very young baby," O'Connor said inside the courtroom.

Sotomayor's Life Experiences and the Supreme Court

Life experience, says ABC News contributor Sam Donaldson, is something you can't help but bring with you to the bench.

"She will bring her life experience just as Justice Scalia brought his and Justice Ginsburg and Justice Marshall once brought theirs," Donaldson said on "Good Morning America" today.

Continuing, Donaldson explained, "It's not that one judge is dumb and the other's smart, one can actually read the English version of the Constitution and one can't; it's you bring different perspectives and lenses because of who you are."

Though conservatives have taken Sotomayor's comments as something of a rallying cry, ABC News' Cokie Roberts points to other rulings that were likely influenced in part by Sotomayor's upbringing and lean her more to the right.

"One of the interesting things about Judge Sotomayor is because she grew up in the projects, she's been much tougher on crime than a lot of Democrats have been in the past, and that might be an interesting life experience as she goes through the confirmation process as well," Roberts said.

Beyond that, the kind of diversity Sotomayor would bring to the court is "essential," Roberts added.

"The truth is that the court has had very few minorities and women -- ever, and right now we're dealing with 36 percent of the population is white male. You'd never know that looking at the U.S. Supreme Court or looking at the United States Congress or looking at most corporate boards," Roberts said.

A Difference Between Male and Female Judges?

Experts say there's no question that gender and life experiences play some part in judicial decisions, and women may think of things that might not occur to men.

"You may reach the same outcome, but the way you get there is different," said Phyllis Coontz of the University of Pittsburgh's School of Public and Urban Affairs. "Women are more sensitive because they think about other people."

A recent study found that on most issues there is no difference in the way that men and women draw conclusions. But then there was this: in the area of sex discrimination, female judges were found to be 10 percent more likely to rule for the victim.

"It makes sense that women would rule differently in cases where they are affected," Coontz said. "And sexual harassment is one of those instances."

The issue of gender has dominated Sotomayor's meetings with senators this week. She told them she meant her previous comments as inspirational, and if she's a justice she'll follow the law -- not her feelings.

But Republicans say they want to know more about her record and they'll scour the questionnaire.

If approved by the Senate, the 54-year-old would be the first Hispanic and third woman to sit on the Supreme Court.

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