GOP, White house at odds over Sotomayor documents

July 3, 2009 6:59:52 AM PDT
A top Republican pressed for more information Thursday about Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's ties to a Puerto Rican civil rights group he said took extreme positions on race, as the White House argued that the material was irrelevant to the judge's nomination. White House Counsel Greg Craig told Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., in a letter that board meeting minutes and other papers detailing the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund's activities while Sotomayor was an outside adviser shouldn't impact her nomination because she had no role in writing or approving them. But Sessions, the top Republican on the Senate committee that will consider her nomination, said the papers could shed light on Sotomayor's judicial approach, particularly her view of racial preferences in hiring.

"During her time there, the organization took extreme positions on legal issues ranging from the death penalty to abortion to racial quotas," Sessions said in a statement. He said it was "absurd" for the White House to call the documents irrelevant.

The battle over the papers isn't likely to damage Sotomayor's chances of confirmation, since Democrats have more than enough votes in favor of President Barack Obama's first high court nominee, and Republicans have shown little appetite for trying to block her.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will begin confirmation hearings July 13, shrugged off the GOP concerns being raised about Sotomayor, saying some in the GOP were going to oppose any Obama pick -- "even if the president had nominated Moses."

Republicans "were going to object no matter who it was. And several of them have told me that privately," Leahy told The Associated Press in an interview at his Vermont farmhouse.

Republicans did not immediately respond to requests for comment about Leahy's remarks.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he was disappointed in the GOP criticism.

"It is disappointing but not surprising that another Supreme Court nominee is facing baseless personal attacks," he said. "Only in Washington could someone service to a highly regarded nonprofit organization that has done so much good for so many be twisted into a negative.

"The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund is a respected civil rights organization, and while we have not always agreed on every issue, the group has made countless important contributions to New York City," Bloomberg said.

Sotomayor early last month gave the Judiciary panel documents she contributed to or helped write while she was a board member from 1980 to 1992, but Leahy joined Sessions recently in asking for more information about the group's activities and policy positions while she was involved.

The organization, now know as LatinoJustice PRLDEF, began sending some of that material to the committee Wednesday, but Sessions' office said Sotomayor's backers were delaying the release of the information to prevent a thorough investigation.

Cesar Perales, PRLDEF's president and general counsel, told the AP earlier this week that he planned to send the documents on a rolling basis, and all of them would arrive on Capitol Hill by week's end.

In his letter to Sessions, Craig said the Judiciary panel already has all pertinent documents on Sotomayor. He said the judge never served on PRLDEF's staff or supervised its employees, and noted that Republicans have in years past refused to release similar documents on their own Supreme Court nominees.

"Perhaps there is confusion about Judge Sotomayor's role with PRLDEF, and that confusion may account for your unusual interest," Craig wrote. "Let me be clear: On Judge Sotomayor's behalf, we submitted all documents the committee requested of her, and we did so in record time."

Craig also defended PRLDEF, calling it "a highly respected civil rights fund."

Sessions noted, however, that Sotomayor held leadership posts on the group's board. And he suggested her participation in PRLDEF, which brought several lawsuits on behalf of minority employees alleging racial discrimination in hiring and promotion, could help show a propensity on the judge's part for using the legal system to advantage minorities in the workplace.

On Monday, the Supreme Court reversed a ruling Sotomayor endorsed as an appeals court judge that rejected the reverse discrimination claims of white firefighters in New Haven, Conn., who were denied promotions because too few minorities scored highly on the qualifying exam.

"During Judge Sotomayor's time at PRLDEF, the organization launched a series of legal actions to throw out the test results for other city employees on the basis of race just like in the New Haven case. What role did Judge Sotomayor play in the decision to bring these cases?" Sessions asked in his statement.

Craig's letter to Sessions constituted the White House's response to a series of questions the Alabaman sent Sotomayor last week about the document search at PRLDEF. He wanted to know whether Sotomayor sent her own representatives to comb through the organization's archives, who they were, whether they copied any information that wasn't given to the Judiciary Committee, and whether they left the boxes "fully intact."

Craig said it was his office that sent private lawyers helping with Sotomayor's nomination to pore through the documents, and they sent all "responsive" documents to the panel.

"No one working for the White House removed any documents from the archives boxes they reviewed," Craig wrote.

The White House is strongly resisting Republicans' suggestions that the hearings should be delayed to give them more time to review the group's documents so they can draw conclusions about Sotomayor.

The best evidence "of how she'd be as a judge are the 17 years of legal opinions that she has written and that she herself has worked on -- not a box or boxes of documents that she didn't write, review or approve," said Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman. "I think there has been plenty of time to review the record."

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