Sotomayor Hearings Enter Final Day

WASHINGTON – Barring a monumental mistake, Sonia Sotomayor has to endure only a few more hours in the witness chair before she can look ahead to her eventual confirmation as a Supreme Court justice.

Sotomayor returns for a third and final day of questioning Thursday, having avoided saying much on a range of hot-button issues, including guns and abortion.

Her unwillingness to be pinned down on almost any topic frustrated even some friendly Democrats.

"I think your record is exemplary, Judge Sotomayor, exemplary," said Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., who quit the Republican Party earlier this year. "I'm not commenting about your answers, but your record is exemplary."

Sotomayor, 55, has been a federal judge for 17 years, the last 11 on the appeals court in New York. President Barack Obama nominated her to take the seat of Justice David Souter, who retired last month.

A vote by the full Senate to confirm her is expected in early August, time enough to allow her to take the judicial oath and participate in a scheduled hearing Sept. 9 on a case involving federal campaign finance law.

Despite her years of service, Republicans continued to focus more on Sotomayor's writings and speeches. They said they were still worried Sotomayor would bring bias and a political agenda to the bench.

"It's muddled, confusing, backtracking on issue after issue," complained Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel. "I frankly am a bit disappointed in the lack of clarity and consistency in her answers."

But Republicans conceded that Sotomayor had not committed a major mistake that would be necessary to derail her nomination to be the first Hispanic and third woman to serve on the high court.

Once she finishes testifying, Republicans plan to call New Haven, Conn., firefighter Frank Ricci, who passed a promotion exam only to see the city toss out the results because too few minorities qualified for promotion.

His ensuing discrimination complaint gives the GOP another chance to portray Sotomayor as a judge who allows her bias to dictate the outcome of a case.

Ricci, in attendance Wednesday, had his reverse discrimination claim rejected by Sotomayor and two other appeals court judges. The Supreme Court overturned that ruling late last month.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Ricci "deserves his chance to tell the American people about how he felt about being denied his promotion, and why he filed suit and what he did to make himself a better candidate for the test."

Sotomayor has said repeatedly that her panel was bound by precedent, an assertion that was challenged in an opinion by fellow Judge Jose Cabranes, her one-time mentor.

In 10 hours of questioning over two days, Sotomayor has warded off frequent attempts to get her to weigh in on any major issue that could come before her as a justice.

In one lengthy exchange with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a prominent abortion opponent, Sotomayor firmly declined to give her opinion in a hypothetical case involving a woman who learns her 38-week-old fetus has spina bifida, a potentially serious birth defect.

All she would do is relate the state of abortion law as defined by the Supreme Court.

In 1992, the court "reaffirmed the core holding of Roe v. Wade that a woman has a constitutional right to terminate her pregnancy in certain cases," she said, adding that the ruling said the court should consider whether any state regulation "has an undue burden on the woman's constitutional right."

Echoing comments she made on other topics throughout the day, Sotomayor said, "All I can say to you is what the court's done and the standard that the court has applied. We don't make policy choices on the court; we look at the case before us."

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