WASHINGTON - President Obama yesterday sought to deflect criticism of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, who finds herself under intensifying scrutiny for saying in 2001 that a female Hispanic judge would often reach a better decision than a white male judge.
"I'm sure she would have restated it," Obama told NBC News, without indicating how he knew that.
The quote in question from Sotomayor has emerged as a rallying call for conservative critics who fear that she would offer opinions from the bench based less on the rule of law and more on her life experience, ethnicity, and gender. That debate is likely to play a central role in her Senate confirmation process.
"I think that when she's appearing before the Senate committee, in her confirmation process, I think all this nonsense that is being spewed out will be revealed for what it is," Obama said in the interview, clearly aware of how ethnicity and gender issues are taking hold in the debate.
His damage control underscored how the White House is eager to stay on message as the battle to publicly define the New York-based federal appeals judge picks up.
Obama's top spokesman, Robert Gibbs, told reporters about Sotomayor: "I think she'd say that her word choice in 2001 was poor."
Gibbs said he did not hear that from Sotomayor directly. He said he learned it from people who had talked to her; he did not identify them. Sotomayor has made no public statements since her nomination became official Tuesday and was not reachable for comment.
Sotomayor, who has served nearly 17 years on the federal bench, would be the first Hispanic, and third woman, to serve on the Supreme Court.
She said in 2001: "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
The comment came in a lecture, titled "A Latina Judge's Voice," that Sotomayor gave at the law school of the University of California, Berkeley. It came in the context of her saying that "our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging."
After three days of suggesting that reporters and critics should not dwell on one sentence from a speech, the White House yesterday had a different message.
"If you look in the entire sweep of the essay that she wrote," Obama said in the NBC interview, "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."
Sotomayor appears headed for confirmation; she needs a majority vote in a Senate, where Democrats have 59 votes. But beyond the final vote, White House officials are pushing for a smooth confirmation, not one that bogs down them or their nominee. Plus, Obama wants a strong win, not a slim one.
Obama told NBC that part of the job of a Supreme Court justice was to stand in somebody else's shoes and that Sotomayor would do that. "That breadth of experience, that knowledge of how the world works, is part of what we want for a justice who's going be effective," Obama said.
At the time Sotomayor gave the 2001 speech, she was in the same appeals court job she holds now. She said then she was reminded daily that her decisions affected people and that she owed them "complete vigilance in checking my assumptions, presumptions, and perspectives."