A Puerto Rican civil rights organization advised by Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor campaigned against seating conservative Robert Bork on the high court in the late 1980s, according to new documents that shed light on the group that’s become a key focus of Republicans questioning Sotomayor’s fitness to be a justice.
The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund officially opposed Bork, whose nomination by President Ronald Reagan was rejected by the Senate in 1987, "because of the threat he poses to the civil rights of the Latino community," its president reported in one of several documents from the group that the Senate Judiciary Committee released Wednesday.
The 350-plus pages of material offer little evidence about Sotomayor’s role in the cases and causes the organization, now known as LatinoJustice PRLDEF, took up while she served on its board from 1980 until 1992.
But Republicans quickly seized on them as full of "red flags" on Sotomayor, whose hearings are scheduled to begin July 13. A top aide to Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the senior Republican on the Judiciary panel, accused Sotomayor’s allies of purposely withholding the documents in a bid to rush through Sotomayor’s confirmation.
"This has all the hallmarks of a deliberate delay and an attempt to frustrate a thorough review of this important information," Stephen Boyd, Sessions’ spokesman, said in a statement. "If these dilatory tactics continue, it will be increasingly more difficult for the hearing to go forward on July 13."
It’s not atypical for records from a Supreme Court nominee’s past to be released shortly before the start of confirmation hearings. The Judiciary panel got thousands of pages of material on Chief Justice John Roberts, for example, just before the opening of his hearings.
About six months later, in declining a request from Democrats for documents relating to Justice Samuel Alito’s service at the Justice Department, the Bush administration argued that his decisions over 15 years on the federal bench "represent the best evidence of his judicial philosophy."
The new disclosures by PRLDEF catalog a wide range of discrimination lawsuits the group handled on behalf of Puerto Rican and other Hispanic minorities, including in the areas of voting, employment, housing and education. But the documents, which include minutes from board meetings Sotomayor attended while serving on the board and chairing its litigation committee, reveal no direct role by the federal appeals court judge in any of the cases or policy positions the PRLDEF took during her service there.
Republicans have criticized Sotomayor’s participation in the group, which they say has taken radical positions and sought to gain racial preferences for Hispanics. They argue that her ties to the group, taken together with Sotomayor’s statements about how her heritage shapes her views as a judge, raise doubts about whether she can be an impartial, colorblind justice.
Democrats counter that the group is a mainstream civil rights organization whose advocacy on behalf of the ethnic minority it represents is entirely appropriate.
They argue that the focus on PRLDEF’s activities shows desperation on the part of the GOP, which has struggled to find its voice on Sotomayor, who would be the first Hispanic justice.
Her "critics must be getting desperate if they’re grasping at straws like this," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., adding that senators should focus on Sotomayor’s 17-year record as a judge rather than "fishing expeditions."
Sotomayor’s allies also say she had no direct role in the cases the fund handled while she was on its board — even while chairing the board’s litigation committee in the late 1980s. The documents reveal virtually nothing about her role on that panel.
Minutes from an October 1987 meeting quote Sotomayor as saying the committee was looking at past and present litigation efforts and "potential areas of emphasis" for the future, but the documents don’t list any specific cases or issues she personally worked on.
GOP attorneys on the Judiciary Committee are scrutinizing the documents for any hint of bias they might reveal about Sotomayor. The attorneys point to the organization’s opposition to Bork and its ties with the community organizing group ACORN — embroiled in voter registration complaints — as evidence that the group had a political agenda.
A summary of the group’s 1987 activities reflects that it worked with ACORN to represent low-income Puerto Rican families in East New York who were banding together to ensure affordable housing in their area.
Democrats, meanwhile, were working to paint Sotomayor as a mainstream judge whose record runs counter to GOP charges that she’s a liberal activist. Senate leaders circulated quotes from legal analysts saying that she follows precedent and shows restraint in her rulings.
Associated Press writers Mark Sherman and Jesse J. Holland contributed to this report.