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Sotomayor Questioned On Abortion


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor weathered a second long day of questioning today. She said that neither President Obama nor any member of the White House staff had asked her substantive questions about abortion or any other issue prior to her nomination.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports on the tough and not-so-tough questions put to Sotomayor today.

NINA TOTENBERG: Texas Republican John Cornyn led off today's grilling, focusing on press reports that the White House had assured pro-choice groups that Sotomayor would be a Supreme Court justice to their liking. How, asked Cornyn, did the White House know that? Had the nominee been asked questions on this subject?

Judge SONIA SOTOMAYOR (U.S. Supreme Court Nominee): I was asked no question by anyone, including the president, about my views on any specific legal issue.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): Do you know, then, on what basis - if that's the case, and I accept your statement - on what basis that the White House officials would subsequently send a message that abortion-rights groups do not need to worry about how you might rule in the challenge to Roe v. Wade?

Judge SOTOMAYOR: No, sir, because you just have to look at my record to know that in the cases that I addressed on all issues, I follow the law.

Sen. CORNYN: On what basis would George Pavia, who was apparently a senior partner in the law firm that hired you as a corporate litigator, on what basis would he say that he thinks support of abortion rights would be in line with your generally liberal instincts? He's quoted in his article saying, quote, I can guarantee she'll be for abortion rights, close quote. On what basis would Mr. Pavia say that, if you know?

Judge SOTOMAYOR: I have no idea, since I know for a fact I never spoke to him about my views on abortion - frankly, on my views on any social issue. George was the manage - was the head partner of my firm, but our contact was not on a daily basis.

TOTENBERG: Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn followed up with more abortion questions, asking whether the states have the right to define when life begins. Sotomayor dodged the inquiry, saying it would be inappropriate to answer a question that might come before the Supreme Court. But she again noted that as of now, the right of a woman to terminate her pregnancy is settled law under Supreme Court precedent. Coburn then moved on to the Second Amendment right to bear arms, and a question about whether there's a right of self-defense.

Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): Well, I think that's what American people want to hear, your honor. Is it okay to defend yourself in your home if you're under attack?

TOTENBERG: Sotomayor responded that under New York law, like most state laws, people have the right to defend themselves if they're in eminent danger.

Judge SOTOMAYOR: The question that would come up, and does come up before juries and judges, is how eminent is the threat? If the threat was in this room, I'm going to come get you, and you go home and get - or I go home; I don't want to suggest I am, by the way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Judge SOTOMAYOR: Please, I'm not - I don't want anybody to misunderstand what I'm trying to say. If I go home, get a gun, come back and shoot you, that may not be legal under New York law.

TOTENBERG: As that answer shows, Sotomayor seemed to loosen up a bit today. The mood lightened even more noticeably, courtesy of Democrat Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

Senator AMY KLOBUCHAR (Democrat, Minnesota): I've been focusing on how patient your mother has been…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. KLOBUCHAR: …through this whole thing because I ran into her in the restroom just now, and I can tell you, she has a lot she'd like to say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. KLOBUCHAR: She has plenty of stories that she would like to share about you. I thought I might miss my questioning opportunity.

Judge SOTOMAYOR: Senator, don't give her the chance.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. KLOBUCHAR: But I was thinking she is much more…

Unidentified Man: The chairman is tempted, let me tell you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. KLOBUCHAR: She is much more patient than my mother has been, who has been waiting for this moment for me to ask these questions and leaving messages like, how long do these guys have to go on?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. KLOBUCHAR: My favorite…

TOTENBERG: Today also marked the official debut of the Judiciary Committee's only professional comic, Al Franken, Minnesota's other Democratic senator. He spent a good deal of his first-ever round of questioning focused in the weeds of a Supreme Court decision on Internet regulation, and on a recent decision dramatically limiting age-discrimination lawsuits. Then he turned his attention to abortion.

Senator AL FRANKEN (Democrat, Minnesota): Yesterday, a member of this committee asked you a few times whether the word abortion appears in the Constitution. And you agreed that, no, the word abortion is not in the Constitution. Are the words birth control in the Constitution?

Judge SOTOMAYOR: No, sir.

Sen. FRANKEN: Are you sure?


Sen. FRANKEN: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. FRANKEN: Are the words privacy in the Constitution? Or the word?

Judge SOTOMAYOR: The word privacy is not.

Sen. FRANKEN: Mm-hmm. Do you believe that the Constitution contains a fundamental right to privacy?

Judge SOTOMAYOR: It contains, as has been recognized by the courts for over 90 years, certain rights under the liberty provision of the due-process clause that extend to the right to privacy in certain situations. This line of cases started with a recognition that parents have a right to direct the education of their children, and that the state could not force parents to send their children to public schools or to bar their children from being educated in ways a state found objectionable.

TOTENBERG: Just as the assembled press corps was about to give up on the serious, new Minnesota senator, he observed that, like Sotomayor, he too had been a fan of the "Perry Mason" show decades ago. What, asked Franken, is the name of the one case that Mason lost and District Attorney Hamilton Burger won?

Judge SOTOMAYOR: I know that I should remember the name of it, but I haven't looked at the episode.

Sen. FRANKEN: Didn't the White House prepare you for…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. FRANKEN: …for that?

TOTENBERG: At that, Chairman Patrick Leahy asked Franken which episode that was. I don't know, lamented the newly minted senator, that's why I asked. Shortly after that, the audio went dead on Chairman Leahy's mic. Said Franken, I think mine works, I'll change places with you. Dead-panned Republican Jeff Sessions, that's the quickest rise of any senator in history.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg
Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
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