Supreme Court Nominee Sotomayor a 'Bully on the Bench?'

GOP senator questions Sotomayor's temperament; she says she's tough, yet fair.

July 13, 2009, 7:16 PM

WASHINGTON, July 14, 2009 -- After a day of questions aimed at determining whether Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor could remain objective in deciding cases, one Republican lawmaker switched gears and asked her pointed questions about her temperament as a judge.

"Now, let's talk about you," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "I like you, by the way, for whatever that matters. Since I may vote for you, that ought to matter to you."

Graham brought up the existence of anonymous quotes compiled in the "Almanac of the Federal Judiciary," a book of judicial profiles. The quotes came to light after her nomination and caused a furor as her supporters said no such comments about the judge's temperament had ever been made on the record by any lawyer.

The comments about Sotomayor make her stand out "like a sore thumb in terms of your temperament," Graham said.

"She's a terror on the bench. She's temperamental, excitable, she seems angry. She's overall aggressive, not very judicial," Graham said. "She does not have a very good temperament. She abuses lawyers. She really lacks judicial temperament. She believes in an out -- she behaves in an out-of-control manner. She makes inappropriate outbursts. She's nasty to lawyers. She will attack lawyers for making an argument she does not like. She can be a bit of a bully."

"I do ask tough questions at oral arguments," she said in response to the criticisms.

Sotomayor explained that she gives lawyers appearing in her court "an opportunity to explain their positions on both sides and to persuade me that they're right," and noted that the judges on her court, the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, have a reputation for peppering lawyers with questions.

During the line of questioning, Sotomayor, 55, responded in measured tones and frequently looked down to her table to take notes.

Pressed further by Graham, who asked her if she thinks she has a "a temperament problem," she said no -- and that she "can only talk about what I know about my relationship with the judges of my court and with the lawyers who appear regularly from our circuit. And I believe that my reputation is stuck as such that I ask the hard questions, but I do it evenly for both sides."

Graham suggested that "obviously you've accomplished a lot in your life, but maybe these hearings are time for self-reflection."

Dems: Graham's Suggestions are 'Baseless'

The Democratic majority on the panel immediately responded with a statement calling Graham's claims "baseless" and citing praise of her judicial style by legal organizations and her colleagues on the bench.

The statement also used the words of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- in which she indicated that her colleagues Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer have similar manners of questioning -- to question whether critics are holding Sotomayor to "an unfair double standard."

Graham also pursued a line of questioning that many other Republicans on the panel did before him: Whether Sotomayor's past remark that a "wise Latina" might arrive at a better conclusion than a white man reflects views that could taint her rulings.

Graham pointed out that if he, as a white male, made a similar comment, critics would "have my head."

"Others could not remotely come close to that statement and survive. Whether that's right or wrong, I think that's a fact," he added.

"I would hope that we've come in America to the place where we can look at a statement that could be misunderstood, and consider it in the context of the person's life," Sotomayor responded.

She had defended the statement at several points during the day, pointing out earlier that the context has "created a misunderstanding" and that she wanted to "state up front, unequivocally and without doubt, I do not believe that any ethnic, racial or gender group has an advantage in sound judging.

"I do believe that every person has an equal opportunity to be a good and wise judge, regardless of their background or life experiences," she continued.

The top Republican on the panel, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, did not agree that her previous statement had been any kind of misunderstanding, noting that she had repeated the same sentiment "about seven times over a number of years' span."

Sotomayor: 'Wise Latina' Statement Left Wrong Impresson

In response, she came close to apologizing for the statement, saying it was "bad because it left an impression that I believe that life experiences commanded a result" in a case.

Sotomayor continued her defense, telling the panel that she has never -- and would never -- let her background influence her decisions.

"The process of judging is the process of keeping an open mind," she told Sessions after he continued to suggest her upbringing would frame her thinking.

"At no time have I permitted my personal views to influence a case," Sotomayor said.

Sessions pressed Sotomayor on whether she could separate her personal feelings from her decisions.

"We are not robots," said Sotomayor. "We have to recognize those feelings and put them aside."

Senators mainly focused today on Sotomayor's judicial philosophy, which she described Monday as "fidelity to the law," but Republicans have expressed concerns about her ability to separate her personal beliefs from the cases she would hear as a Supreme Court justice in light of President Obama's stated goal of seeking a nominee with the "quality of empathy."

GOP senators on the panel have expressed concern over an "empathy standard" of sorts, but Sotomayor and Democrats on the committee have tried to tamp down that worry.

One case that conservatives have cited gained even more prominence last month, after the Supreme Court voted along ideological lines to overturn a ruling that Sotomayor and a panel of appeals judges had handed down.

In that case, Ricci v. DeStefano, a group of white and Hispanic firefighters in New Haven, Conn., sued the city, claiming it had discriminated against them when it threw out promotion tests because black firefighters didn't perform well on them.

The Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, gave Sotomayor the chance to explain why she ruled against the white and Hispanic firefighters as an appeals judge.

Sotomayor Defends New Haven Firefighters Ruling

Sotomayor defended her actions, saying that she and her fellow judges were obligated to follow precedent and that she did not rule based on the racial issues that underscored the case.

"This was not a quota case; this was not an affirmative action case. This was a challenge to a test that everybody agreed had a very wide difference between the pass rates of a variety of different groups."

She was asked by Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., on her take on affirmative action and she said she hoped that in "25 years, race in our society won't be needed to be considered in any situation."

She added, "That's the hope."

Kohl and others attempted to tease out Sotomayor's stances on controversial social issues, though she rarely showed her hand.

Kohl also asked the nominee if she believes that Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that found that a woman has a constitutional right to an abortion, is "settled law."

Sotomayor noted that in 1992, the Supreme Court "reaffirmed the holding in Roe," adding precedent on the abortion issue. She agreed that there is a right to privacy, though she did not say whether she agreed with the justices who reaffirmed the opinion in the 1992 case.

On the Second Amendment, Sotomayor recognized "how important the right to bear arms is to many, many Americans," adding that one of her godchildren is a member of the National Rifle Association and that she has friends who hunt.

Later in the hearing, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, referred to a footnote in an opinion she had authored in another case, asking whether her writing "leaves the impression that unless the right to bear arms is considered fundamental, any gun restriction is necessarily permissible under the Second Amendment."

"Is that what you believe?" Hatch asked.

Sotomayor responded no, and said, "I'm not taking an opinion on that issue, because it's an open question."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events