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Sotomayor won't budge on ‘reverse discrimination’ ruling

The Supreme Court nominee said Tuesday that she had to follow legal precedent. Critics in the Senate sharply disagreed.

Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor answers questions from senators during her confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor offered the first public defense on Tuesday of her decision to dismiss a reverse-discrimination case involving white firefighters in New Haven, Conn. She told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that the appeals court judges’ hands were tied by existing law.

“The issue was not what we would do or not do,” she said. “When you are on a circuit [appeals] court, you are obligated to follow a circuit’s precedent.”

Ms. Sotomayor was one of three appeals court judges who agreed with a trial judge that the white firefighters’ case should be thrown out of court. That decision was overturned by the nation’s highest court in a 5-to-4 opinion issued two weeks ago.

The case was controversial because it involved the hot-button issue of the use of race as a criterion in government employment decisions. It was also controversial because the Sotomayor appeals court panel initially dismissed the case by issuing an unsigned one-paragraph summary order. Such action is usually reserved for routine, unimportant decisions.

Sotomayor said there was no need for the appeals court panel to prepare its own detailed analysis of the New Haven case. She said the panel relied on the “very thorough” 78-page decision of the federal judge in New Haven.

Some analysts have suggested the firefighter case might occupy center stage at Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, given the hearings’ proximity to the high court decision.

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