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Race Enters Debate on Sotomayor

With the votes in hand to confirm Supreme Court hopeful Sonia Sotomayor as early as Thursday, Senate Democrats on Wednesday questioned the motives behind Republican opposition to the nominee and suggested the GOP faces utter collapse in Hispanic communities.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) hinted at racial undertones behind Republicans’ decision to stand against Sotomayor — a charge that Republicans vehemently rejected.

Appearing in the Capitol with Latino community leaders, Menendez argued that Sotomayor’s record as a federal judge indicates she takes a moderate view of the law and that her answers during her confirmation hearing clearly showed she is not a judicial activist — all qualities that Republicans have repeatedly said they desire in a Supreme Court nominee.

Although Menendez did not explicitly accuse Republicans of outright racial bias, he clearly suggested an underlying ethnic issue. “When we finally put it all behind someone and we’re told [no] … it’s a strong message to us— in the Latino community, Menendez said.

“We need to know who is with us and who is not,— Menendez added. “I think Republicans will pay a price for saying no to this judge.—

Janet Murguía, head of the National Council of La Raza, agreed, saying, “I think the Republican Party is at a crossroads with our Latino community. … This vote will matter and it will be long remembered.—

But National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) rejected that argument. “I just think this idea that these [decisions] were tied to ethnicity or sex or race are offensive, and clearly the disagreement that I and others have, it’s not personal to Judge Sotomayor,— Cornyn said. “I frankly ended up liking her on a personal level. I just disagree with her judicial philosophy.—

Cornyn called Murguía’s warning “Democratic cheerleading … some of the stuff is just really ugly, and I just think it should not be tolerated, frankly.—

La Raza and other Latino organizations did not accuse Democrats of racism when they opposed a number of former President George W. Bush’s Latino nominees, he said.

“I didn’t hear people ask that question when Miguel Estrada was filibustered seven times and denied an up-or-down vote. I didn’t hear that suggestion when Alberto Gonzales was being savaged by Democrats, or when Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who served competently in Iraq, was denied a promotion,— Cornyn said.

[IMGCAP(1)]A senior GOP leadership aide said race has not played a factor in how Republicans have decided to vote, arguing that Republicans are critical of Sotomayor’s positions on the role of the judiciary and a number of rulings that she has been involved in over the past several years.

On issues ranging from gun control to property rights and affirmative action, Sotomayor’s rulings, this aide said, indicate she will take a much more liberal view of the law than most Republicans are comfortable with.

The aide also questioned the argument that Republicans will be hurt with Latino voters, noting that public opinion polls have not shown a significant drop in the GOP’s numbers with Latinos since the confirmation process began. “Where’s the backlash?— the aide questioned.

Democrats, led by Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (Vt.), are trying to turn the “judicial activist— tag — a tried and true tool of conservatives and Republicans against Democratic nominees — against the GOP.

“I understand decrying judicial activism when judges have simply substituted their judgment for those of elected officials,— Leahy said Tuesday as he kicked off the floor debate on the nomination. “That is what we have seen all too often these last years from the conservative members of the Supreme Court.—

Leahy said he is “concerned that the Supreme Court … remains poised to issue rulings … that second-guess and overturn the considered decision made by Congress how best to protect the rights and well-being of the American people.—

Speaking at a rally of civil rights leaders, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, took up Leahy’s argument.

“Don’t tell me [conservative justices] are up there to call balls and strikes as mere umpires. They’re there to drive that court to the right,— Whitehouse said, adding that Republicans have undertaken “strange and strained efforts to impose right-wing orthodoxy on our courts.—

The Democrats’ strenuous pushback against opposition to Sotomayor comes even as the nominee has more than enough votes to easily win confirmation. Sen. Kit Bond (Mo.) on Wednesday became the seventh Republican to throw his support behind President Barack Obama’s first high-court nominee.

Bond said in a floor speech that his support is predicated in part on his belief that partisan politics should not play a role in the confirmation process.

“The country is tired of partisanship infecting every debate,— he said. “The country is tired of actions by Congress becoming a political battle. … There’s been no significant finding against her. There’s been no public uprising against her. I do not believe the Constitution tells me that I should refuse to support her merely because I disagree with her on some cases. I will support her.—

Jeremy B. White contributed to this report.

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