Supreme Court's Ricci Ruling Set Up New Precedent, Sotomayor Argues

Calling herself "absolutely" bound by the Supreme Court's recent decision in a controversial reverse discrimination case, Sonia Sotomayor said Tuesday the precedent established is new, but now must be followed by every judge in the country.

The Supreme Court nominee told lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee -- charged with her confirmation hearing -- that her decision against the 19 white and one Hispanic firefighter was predicated on established Supreme Court rulings and other precedents that the high court revised.

The case of Ricci v. DeStefano is closely identified with Sotomayor, as her would-be fellow justices on the high court overturned the ruling she offered as a 2nd Circuit Court judge.

"The Supreme Court, in looking and review that case, applied a new standard," Sotomayor said. "In fact, it announced that it was applying a standard from a different area of law and explaining to employers and the courts below how to look at this question in the future."

The case centered on whether New Haven, Conn., city leaders were within their rights to dismiss promotion exam results in which white firefighters outscored minority test-takers.

The first four senators who questioned Sotomayor Tuesday used the case to set up the debate over whether Sotomayor is an activist judge.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the top Republican on the panel, suggested Sotomayor's opinion gave short shrift to Frank Ricci and the other firefighters who said the city's decision amounted to reverse discrimination.

"We were very sympathetic," Sotomayor said, reiterating that it was the district court opinion that she and her fellow judges affirmed.

Sessions also objected to the manner in which Sotomayor and her fellow judges released the decision in a short unsigned opinion.

"Tell us how it came to be that this important case was dealt with in such a cursory manner," he asked. Sotomayor said her opinion affirmed the lengthy 78-page decision of the trial court judge.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, expressed his dissatisfaction with Sotomayor's explanation.

"People all over the country are tired of courts imposing their will against one group or another without justification," he said.

Hatch also brought up his concern that Ricci was the subject of a smear campaign by a liberal group supporting the Sotomayor nomination. Even though he wasn't looking for a response from Sotomayor, and said he wasn't implicating her as part of the smear job, Sotomayor concurred with Hatch's disapproval of the alleged tactics.

"I would never, ever endorse, approve, or tolerate ... that kind of conduct," she said.

Republican senators invited Ricci and one of his fellow firefighters to testify about the case. They are scheduled to appear before the committee on Thursday.