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Who is Sotomayor?

Supreme Court | Even after this week's hearings, conservatives still wonder where she really stands on the issues

WASHINGTON-After seven weeks of showdown anticipation, you could almost hear the collective disgusted sighs among the nation's conservatives this week when Sen. Lindsey Graham handicapped the Sonia Sotomayor hearings.

"Unless you have a complete meltdown, you are going to get confirmed," the South Carolina Republican matter-of-factly told the woman vying to become the nation's first Hispanic Supreme Court justice.

Such deflating prognosticating is not what conservative groups expected from a top Republican during Round 1 of the Senate Judiciary Committee's confirmation hearing for President Obama's first Supreme Court pick. These groups, frustrated by what they see as a national acceptance-even among Republicans-that Sotomayor's nomination was a slam-dunk, have implored conservative senators to pick up their attack game.

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Seeing this week's televised debates as a chance to lay out for voters the stark differences in judicial philosophies between an Obama judge and a conservative judge, the seven Republicans on the committee eventually did press Sotomayor about her left-leaning positions on racial preferences, property rights, and gun ownership. But the two days of questioning left many conservatives wondering just who is the real Sotomayor?

Starting with her brisk seven-minute opening statement, Sotomayor the nominee tried to distance herself from Sotomayor the 17-year veteran judge.

"The task of the judge is not to make the law. It is to apply the law," she said in contradiction to a past statement where she said the nation's appeals courts are "where policy is made."

Sotomayor then proceeded to distance herself from President Obama's own criteria for selecting a justice: that judges should employ feelings of empathy. This has become a rallying point for conservatives who stand for objectivity of the law. But don't fear, Sotomayor the nominee exclaimed.

"I wouldn't approach the issue of judging the way the president does," Sotomayor asserted. "The job of the judge is to apply the law."

Has reading all the media analysis of her legal past changed Sotomayor, or is she just doing what she needs to do to sail through confirmation and take a seat on the bench this October?

"If you had to sum up the week, the hearings were all about denial," observed Curt Levey, the executive director of the Committee for Justice. "She's pretty much denied the plain meaning of everything she's said in the past."

That includes backpedaling from her most infamous remark, in a 2001 speech, that a "wise Latina" judge would make better decisions than a white male.

She dismissed the comment by calling it a misunderstood "rhetorical flourish that fell flat." She even used the conservative judicial tenet of following court precedent to explain away her most controversial ruling, reversed by the Supreme Court last month, against a group of Connecticut firefighters who were denied promotions after no blacks passed the qualifying test.

"Who are we getting here?" Graham asked, during his heated questioning about Sotomayor's judicial temperament, an apparent attempt by Graham to make amends to conservative activists for his earlier comment. "That's what we are trying to figure out."

Manuel Miranda, the chairman of the conservative Third Branch Conference, said Sotomayor's rejection of Obama's own standard and the representation of herself as a judge restrained by the Constitution and the law provide a strategic opening for conservatives. It is now up to Senate Republicans, he said, to tie the hand of Obama by using Sotomayor's answers as the benchmark for his future nominations.

Miranda added that Republicans have been savvy to limit their themes to issues likely to bring voters to the polls in 2010 and 2012, such as gun ownership and abortion. However, he did not single out many senators for being courageous or bold during questioning.

Granted, Republicans on the committee had to engage in a difficult dance of questioning Sotomayor while not alienating the nation's growing Hispanic voting block. This often took the form of calm questions sprinkled with humor.

One area Republicans did not shy away from was abortion, where Sotomayor does not have an extensive record. However, while acknowledging that Obama did not ask her about abortion, Sotomayor declined to outline her own views.

"I can't answer that in the abstract," she said on at least two occasions while Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., an obstetrician, peppered her with right to life questions. Sotomayor did say Roe v. Wade, the 1973 court decision legalizing abortion, is established law.

In a letter to the committee, the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission wrote that Sotomayor's 12-year involvement with the liberal Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, which filed briefs in at least six prominent court cases in support of abortion rights, "raises serious questions about her commitment to pro-life values."

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