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NATIONAL POLITICS & POLICY | White House Reassures Abortion-Rights Advocates of Sotomayor's Views on Roe

NATIONAL POLITICS & POLICY | White House Reassures Abortion-Rights Advocates of Sotomayor's Views on Roe
[May 29, 2009]

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Thursday assured abortion-rights groups that Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor shares President Obama's views on constitutional protection for a right to privacy and a woman's right to abortion, the Washington Post reports. Although many abortion-rights groups have welcomed the nomination, some have voiced concern over Sotomayor's limited judicial record on cases involving abortion rights, especially the right to privacy that forms the basis for Roe v. Wade. Gibbs said that although Obama did not specifically ask Sotomayor about abortion rights during preliminary interviews, the White House is certain she agrees with the president on the constitutionality of Roe. Obama and Sotomayor "talked about the theory of constitutional interpretation, generally, including her views on unenumerated rights in the Constitution and the theory of settled law," Gibbs said, adding that Obama felt "very comfortable with her interpretation of the Constitution being similar to that of his." In a 2007 campaign debate, Obama said he would not nominate "somebody who doesn't believe in the right to privacy," which the Supreme Court ruled gave women the right to terminate a pregnancy. Obama administration officials also said that they held private conversations on Thursday with groups on both sides of the abortion debate.

The Post reports that Sotomayor has not dealt with constitutional issues regarding abortion rights in the nearly two decades she has been a federal judge. Her most notable decision regarding abortion was in 2002 when she ruled that the Bush administration had the right to implement the "global gag rule," which banned federal funding for international family planning groups that offer abortion services and information. Although that decision "reveals nothing about abortion rights," it is based on precedents from the Supreme Court and the Second U.S. Circuit of Appeals, the Post reports. Sotomayor wrote in her decision that the Supreme Court "has made clear that the government is free to favor the antiabortion position over the pro-choice position, and can do so with public funds." She also ruled that a group of antiabortion-rights protesters could go forward with a lawsuit alleging police brutality; however, that case focused on issues of municipal liability, not the constitutional right to an abortion, according to the Post.

Currently, the court is essentially split on the issue of the right to privacy and abortion. Retiring Justice David Souter was one of three authors in a 2002 decision that upheld the basic tenets Roe, and abortion-rights supporters believe that replacing Souter with someone who does not support Roe would threaten those rights, the Post reports. Senior Senate Democrats said that they expect the issue to be brought up during private meetings with Sotomayor next week. However, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a strong supporter of abortion rights, said she will not specifically ask Sotomayor about Roe. She said that she "feel[s] as comfortable as I could possibly feel" about Sotomayor's support for abortion rights (Barnes/Shear, Washington Post, 5/29).

Advocates on both sides of the abortion-rights debate are urging members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to question Sotomayor about her views during her confirmation hearings. Nancy Northup of the Center for Reproductive Rights said, "I think both sides can agree that the American people should know where its nominees to the Supreme Court stand on important constitutionally decided decisions like Roe v. Wade." Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, said, "We've really been focused on asking senators to really probe this question of her judicial philosophy, as to whether or not she's going to approach a decision like [Roe] as a jurist or as a woman" (Totenberg, "All Things Considered," NPR, 5/28). Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, said his group thinks it is "critical that senators thoroughly explore whether [Sotomayor] believes that Supreme Court justices have the right to override the decisions of elected lawmakers on such issues as partial-birth abortion, tax funding of abortion and parental notification for abortion" (Morton, Washington Times, 5/29).

Several abortion-rights advocacy groups said that they would wait to take a stance on the nomination until they learn more about Sotomayor's views on the right to privacy. Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, said the group does not "have enough information to take a position at this time," adding that it is "waiting to learn more about [Sotomayor's] views on the constitutional right to privacy, including the right to choose." Doug Laube of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health said, "Sure we're concerned ... but we're happy to take a wait-and-see attitude." He also said the group is "hoping and counting on her respect for past legal precedent as an encouraging sign, but we don't have any direct evidence" (Hirschfeld Davis, AP/Yahoo! News, 5/28).

Meanwhile, William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said he supports Sotomayor's nomination because her record shows more conservative leanings than people expected out of an Obama nominee. "I wish I knew more about her. But from what we know, it looks like she'll be at least a wash with [Justice David] Souter, and maybe we'll even seen an improvement," Donohue said, adding, "If the Republicans are smart, they would not fight this one" (Washington Times, 5/29).

Broadcast Coverage

NPR's "All Things Considered" on Thursday included a discussion with Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, regarding the nomination. The senators discussed issues they plan to address with Sotomayor in her confirmation hearings, as well as their expected timeline for the confirmation (Block, "All Things Considered," NPR, 5/28).

In addition, MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show" on Thursday included a discussion with NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg regarding the GOP's opposition to Sotomayor's nomination (Maddow, "The Rachel Maddow Show," MSNBC, 5/28).