WASHINGTON – Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor determinedly sidestepped volleys of Republican questions on abortion and gun rights Wednesday, keeping her demeanor cool and her opinions mostly private as she neared the end of a marathon Senate grilling on the road to all but sure confirmation.
After two long days of questioning by Judiciary Committee senators, Sotomayor had yet to make a slip — certainly not the gaffe that even Republicans concede would be necessary to derail her nomination to be the first Hispanic and third woman to serve on the high court. She was due back for still more questioning on Thursday.
The appeals court judge, 55, avoided weighing in on any major issue that could come before her as a justice, instead using legal doctrine, carefully worded deflections and even humor to ward off efforts to pin her down.
Appearing more at ease in the witness chair, Sotomayor defused a tense exchange on gun rights by joking about shooting a GOP critic and charmed Democratic supporters with nostalgic praise for fictional attorney Perry Mason.
Republicans, frustrated in their attempts to undercut President Barack Obama's first high court choice, 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."
Her rulings — except for a much-debated reverse discrimination case — have not shed much light on her positions either, though she is considered unlikely to disturb the Supreme Court balance in replacing generally liberal Justice David Souter.
On abortion rights for example, Sotomayor has not ruled on any case that squarely confronts the issue. As an appeals court judge she dismissed a challenge to the so-called global gag rule on U.S. foreign aid, deciding against an abortion rights group. But in her opinion she used the phrases "anti-abortion" and "pro-choice," typically used by abortion rights supporters.
The hearings are expected to continue Thursday with more questions for Sotomayor and testimony from outside witnesses. A vote by the full Senate to confirm her is expected in early August, time enough to allow her to don the robes of a justice before a scheduled hearing on Sept. 9 on a case involving federal campaign finance law.
The cavernous hearing room on Capitol Hill was filled for a third straight day, and tourists waited in line outside for their few moments to witness history.
Among the audience members sat Frank Ricci, a white New Haven, Conn., firefighter whose reverse discrimination claim was rejected by Sotomayor's court panel. The Supreme Court overturned that ruling late last month, and Republicans plan to showcase Ricci on Thursday as part of their effort to portray her as a judge who has let her biases trump the law.
On Wednesday, Sotomayor declined repeatedly to respond to questions designed to elicit her personal and legal views about a woman's right to end a pregnancy, saying she couldn't address it in the abstract and wouldn't do so in any specific way since the issue is likely to come before the court.
The Supreme Court in 1992 "reaffirmed the core holding of Roe v. Wade that a woman has a constitutional right to terminate her pregnancy in certain cases," Sotomayor told Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., adding that the ruling said the court should consider whether any state regulation "has an undue burden on the woman's constitutional right."
But she refused to be drawn out by Coburn, a leading abortion-rights foe, on whether a late-term abortion would be appropriate, or whether technological advances that allow an early-term fetus to survive should have any bearing on the legal standard for ending a pregnancy.
"All I can say to you is what the court's done and the standard that the court has applied," Sotomayor said. "We don't make policy choices on the court; we look at the case before us."
Earlier, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, asked how the Obama administration could have known her position on the issue.
"I was asked no question by anyone including the president about my views on any specific legal issue," she said.
She was no more forthcoming on the issue when pressed by an abortion rights supporter, Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa. Asked whether the 1992 ruling reaffirming Roe was a kind of "super" precedent, she didn't respond directly.
On her second day fielding questions, Sotomayor sidestepped when Cornyn asked whether she stood by or disavowed a controversial 2001 remark that a "wise Latina" judge would often make better decisions than a white male.
She said she stood by her explanation Tuesday that the words were a rhetorical flourish gone awry.
Cornyn persisted, asking whether she would regret it if her audience of students understood her to be saying that the quality of a judge depended on race, gender or ethnicity.
"I would regret that," she said of any misunderstanding of remarks that have caused more pre-confirmation controversy than any other issue.
Sotomayor, appearing more relaxed on the third day of nationally televised Senate hearings, shared a few light moments with her interrogators while fielding questions on serious issues.
Asked by Coburn whether the Second Amendment confers a right to personal self-defense, Sotomayor posed a hypothetical in which the senator threatened her with bodily harm and she went home to get a gun and shoot him.
"I don't want to suggest I am, by the way," Sotomayor said, to laughter from the audience and Coburn.
Coburn responded with his own jibe: "You'll have lots of 'splainin' to do.'" His remark echoed a refrain often heard on a 1950s situation comedy, "I Love Lucy," in which the main character's Cuban-born husband Ricky Ricardo would often say with exasperation, "Lucy, you got some 'splainin' to do."
At another point, when Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said she had run into Sotomayor's mother in a ladies' room and noted that she "has plenty of stories she'd like to share about you," Sotomayor begged the senator with a laugh, "Don't give her the chance!"
And she shared a chuckle with the Senate's only professional comedian, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., about their mutual love of the TV series "Perry Mason."
Asked by Franken at the close of his questioning which was the lone case the prosecutor Hamilton Burger won during the show's run, Sotomayor was at a loss.
"Didn't the White House prepare you for that?" Franken asked with mock incredulity, referring to the meticulous rehearsals Obama's team held with Sotomayor to get her ready for her Senate grilling.
"You're right," Sotomayor said. "But I was spending a lot of time on reviewing cases."