Video: Obama calls Sotomayor's word choice 'poor'

NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 5/29/2009 6:43:43 PM ET 2009-05-29T22:43:43

President Barack Obama called criticism of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor “nonsense” Friday, telling NBC News that while Sotomayor would probably rephrase her eight-year-old comments on race, she would be “a good judge.”

In an exclusive interview with Brian Williams, anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” Obama said it was important to look at “the entire scope” of Sotomayor’s comments in a speech in 2001 at the University of California Law School.

Sotomayor, a U.S. district judge in New York whom Obama nominated to replace Justice David Souter on the Supreme Court this week, said a “wise Latina woman” with her experiences would more often than not reach a “better conclusion” than a white male.

Critics pounced on the comments as evidence that Sotomayor would be an “activist” judge, but Obama said her comments made it clear that she was “the exact opposite.”

“I’m sure she would have restated it,” the president said. “But if you look in the entire sweep of the essay that she wrote, what’s clear is that she was simply saying that her life experiences will give her information about the struggles and hardships that people are going through.

“That will make her a good judge,” Obama said in the interview, which will air in its entirety next week in a two-part NBC News special on life in the White House.

'Right choice,' Obama says in address
The president also addressed the issue in his weekly radio and Internet address.

"I am certain that she is the right choice," the president said, scolding critics who he said were trying to distort her record and past statements. Those include her 2001 comment that a female Hispanic judge would often reach a better decision than a white male judge.

With the Senate returning next week from recess, Obama said he hopes it begins the confirmation process without delay and he expects his nominee to be on the bench when the Supreme Court begins its new term in October.

Video: Obama defends Sotomayor nomination In the interim, Obama said he expects "rigorous evaluation" of his nominee but added: "What I hope is that we can avoid the political posturing and ideological brinksmanship that has bogged down this process, and Congress, in the past."

He derided "some in Washington who are attempting to draw old battle lines and playing the usual political games, pulling a few comments out of context to paint a distorted picture of Judge Sotomayor's record."

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"But I am confident that these efforts will fail," Obama added, "because Judge Sotomayor's 17-year record on the bench — hundreds of judicial decisions that every American can read for him or herself — speak far louder than any attack; her record makes clear that she is fair, unbiased and dedicated to the rule of law."

Judge ‘understands ... day-to-day lives’
The controversy over Sotomayor’s comments is likely to come up next week, when she is scheduled to meet with Democratic Sens. Harry Reid of Nevada and Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama.

Sessions and other Republican senators have said Sotomayor would get a fair hearing and was almost certain to be confirmed. But other conservative figures have seized on Sotomayor’s 2001 speech as proof of her bias against whites and men. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called her a “racist” in an online posting.

Obama sharply defended Sotomayor, saying that in her confirmation hearings “all this nonsense that is being spewed out will be revealed for what it is.”

In the same speech, Sotomayor pointed out “that it was nine white males who passed down Brown versus Board of Education, which is partly responsible for me sitting here,” Obama said, in reference to the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling that made school segregation illegal.

“So that’s hardly the kind of statement that would indicate that she subscribes to identity politics,” he said.

“Part of the job of a justice on the Supreme Court, or any judge, is to be able to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to be able to understand the nature of the case and how it has an impact on people’s ordinary day-to-day lives,” Obama said, adding that Sotomayor would be able to understand the concerns of both “the farmer in Iowa” and “a corporate CEO.”

“That breadth of experience, that knowledge of how the world works, is part of what we want for a justice who’s going to be effective,” he said.

Gibbs laments ‘poor’ choice of words
Still, the president implicitly agreed with White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, who called Sotomayor’s choice of words in her 2001 speech “poor.”

Gibbs told reporters that Sotomayor was “simply making the point that personal experiences are relevant to the process of judging, that your personal experiences have a tendency to make you more aware of certain facts in certain cases, that your experiences affect your understanding.”

More than one line in the 2001 speech has helped drive the debate over Sotomayor’s judgment.

She also said, for example: “Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see.”

“My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas in which I am unfamiliar,” she said. “I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage.”

In nominating Sotomayor, Obama said he wanted a judge who would “approach decisions without any particular ideology or agenda, but rather a commitment to impartial justice.” But he also called her life experience essential, saying she had an understanding of “how ordinary people live.”

NBC’s Chuck Todd and msnbc.com’s Alex Johnson contributed to this report.

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