Sotomayor handles Republicans with ease

Judge Sonia Sotomayor, whose confirmation as the first Hispanic on the US Supreme Court is virtually assured, returns to Capitol Hill Wednesday for a third day of Senate grilling.

Sotomayor was due back before the Senate Judiciary Committee at 9:30 am (1330 GMT), a day after she fought back against charges of racial bias and distanced herself from her past remark that a "wise Latina" woman’s heritage might help make better rulings than a white judge.

"It’s a refrain I keep repeating because that is my philosophy of judging: applying the law to the facts at hand," she said, stressing throughout the hours-long confirmation hearing that she would not allow personal bias to determine her rulings on the bench.

She even went so far as to differ with President Barack Obama — who nominated Sotomayor to the high court in late May — when he said as a senator in 2005 that in some rulings, "the critical ingredient is supplied by what is in the judge’s heart."

"I wouldn’t approach the issue of judging in the way the president does," Sotomayor said. "It’s not the heart that compels conclusions in cases, it’s the law… We apply law to facts. We don’t apply feelings to facts."

The nominee declined to explicitly criticize former president George W. Bush’s actions after the September 11, 2001 attacks, but said the strikes did not dent her belief in the need to protect individual rights.

Democratic Senator Russell Feingold, who has fiercely criticized what he terms "war on terror" abuses, also drew a cautious response when he asked whether Supreme Court rulings undermining Bush-era anti-terror practices showed that "mistakes were made" after 9/11.

"That’s not the way that judges look at that issue. We don’t decide whether mistakes were made," said Sotomayor, who allowed that the decisions had found evidence of conflict between the policy and the US Constitution or US law.

Sotomayor, 55, repudiated her controversial 2001 comment that a "wise Latina" usually reaches a better conclusion than a white man as "a rhetorical flourish that fell flat."

"I want 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," the appeals court judge told lawmakers in response to questions by the panel’s top Republican, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama.

"It was bad, because it left an impression that I believed that life experiences commanded a result in a case, but that’s clearly not what I do as a judge."

Republican officials and conservative commentators have seized on the remark to accuse Sotomayor, whose family hails from the US Caribbean territory of Puerto Rico, of saying that racial background shapes judicial rulings.

Sessions said he remained "very troubled" and that he worried any such bias would "reach full flower" if Sotomayor wins confirmation to the lifetime appointment.

"The questions being asked of you from the other side primarily are along the lines of, will you go too far in siding with minorities?" explained Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the number two Senate Democrat.

During the hearing, Sotomayor denounced the World War II-era jailing of Japanese Americans, saying it was "inconceivable to me today that a decision permitting the detention and arrest of an individual solely on the basis of their race would be considered appropriate by our government."

A judge, she said, "should never rule from fear. A judge should rule from law and the Constitution."

Sotomayor’s rise from a poor childhood in New York City’s hardscrabble Bronx to the pinnacle of US judicial life mirrors Obama’s remarkable ascent.

Observers say there are little obstacles to her confirmation: Democrats dominate the committee and have, at least on paper, the 60 votes needed to overrun any Republican effort in the Senate to stymie the nomination.

The Princeton-educated jurist would replace retired Justice David Souter and be the second woman currently on the nine-member court, alongside Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the third after retired justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

The court, which is the final arbiter of the US Constitution, is often called upon to decide bitter political disputes on volatile issues like abortion and gun rights.