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Obama's Supreme Court Nominee; Senators Judge Sotomayor; When Law and Politics Collide

Aired May 26, 2009 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, the confirmation battle begins over an historic Supreme Court choice. We're digging into the life and legal record of Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

This hour, former Bush attorney general Alberto Gonzales on the woman poised to become the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court.

Also, California's high court upholds a voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage. We're going to tell you what happens next and why thousands of gay couples can find something positive in the ruling.

And burning anger over North Korea's brazen nuclear test. U.N. diplomats and the Obama administration way possible punishment, but their hands may be tied.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in CNN's command center for breaking news, politics and extraordinary reports from around the world.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Right now, liberal and conservative groups both are scouring Judge Sonia Sotomayor's 17-year record on the federal bench. President Obama's first nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court brings along a lengthy paper trail, a compelling life story, and a double dose of diversity as a Latina woman.

We have extensive coverage of the president's choice, how he made it, and the battle ahead. CNN's Deborah Feyerick is standing by with a closer look on who this woman is.

But let's go to our White House correspondent, Dan Lothian, on the president's historic decision today -- Dan.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It is historic, Wolf. And you know her name had been widely speculated as a top choice, but the White House was able to keep the decision a secret, in part because the president did not make up his mind until the very last minute.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LOTHIAN (voice-over): The final decision came after what President Obama called a rigorous and comprehensive process, nominating the first Hispanic-American, Sonia Sotomayor, to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter. JUDGE SONIA SOTOMAYOR, SUPREME COURT NOMINEE: I am an ordinary person who has been blessed with extraordinary opportunities and experiences. Today is one of those experiences.

LOTHIAN: The president praised her intellect and her common touch.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Walking in the door, she would bring more experience on the bench and more varied experience on the bench than anyone currently serving on the United States Supreme Court had when they were appointed.

LOTHIAN: Her journey to the Supreme Court nomination began last Thursday, when Sotomayor visited the White House for six hours and met with the president for one. Aides say that visit was critical but that no one thing she said or did during the meeting pushed her over the top.

At the time, she was part of the final four, all women, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Senior administration officials say Mr. Obama was least familiar with Sotomayor but had been "interested from the start," driven by her background and his instinct. The president pressed his aides to offer pros and cons, and officials say they did not uncover any deal-breakers.

Over the weekend at Camp David, the president was leaning in one direction, but was still undecided. On Memorial Day, aides say he made up his mind, then placed a call to Sotomayor around 9:00 p.m., just hours before the highly anticipated announcement, a decision that's still sinking in.

SOTOMAYOR: I was just counseled not to be nervous. That's almost impossible.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LOTHIAN: Now, the White House says that she was not picked because she is an Hispanic, but the president does believe that having a Hispanic-American on the court is a healthy thing -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And I take it the president did give a heads up to some key members of Congress. Is that right?

LOTHIAN: He really did. Before he made that announcement this morning, he did reach out by phone to Patrick Leahy, Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid, up on Capitol Hill. Of course, the president will be playing a very active role in the confirmation process, which, of course, they hope she will be confirmed by the August recess -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which will hold the hearings, presumably this summer.

All right. Thanks very much for that, Dan Lothian.

President Obama says Sonia Sotomayor's life story is inspiring. She's overcome very humble beginnings, a family lost and a longstanding health condition.

CNN's Deborah Feyerick is covering the personal side of this Supreme Court nominee.

What are you learning, Deb?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what we can tell you is that when you talk to people, most of them who know her well say that Judge Sonia Sotomayor brings with her real life experience. President Obama referred to it when he talked of her sense of compassion and her understanding of how ordinary people live.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FEYERICK (voice-over): Born in the South Bronx, it's not crime or violence or poverty Sonia Sotomayor talks about. What influenced her more is her mom.

SOTOMAYOR: I am all I am because of her, and I am only half the woman she is.

FEYERICK: Originally from Puerto Rico, her parents moved into a public housing project near Yankee Stadium when Sotomayor was 3. Her dad worked in a factory and spoke no English. Her mother, a nurse, often worked two jobs to support Sonia and her brother.

OBAMA: Sonia's mom bought the only set of encyclopedias in the neighborhood, sent her children to a Catholic School called Cardinal Spellman out of a belief that with a good education here, in America, all things are possible.

FEYERICK: At age 8, Sotomayor was diagnosed with diabetes. A year later, her dad died. Both tough, says a colleague.

JUDGE KIMBA WOOD, SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK: Overcoming those two difficulties in her life may be just as important as overcoming any prejudice against Hispanics.

FEYERICK: In her biography for the law school admissions council, Sotomayor says...

SOTOMAYOR: I didn't think of myself as a minority in the environment I was in. The community I grew up in, Hispanics predominated. I don't know that I had a sense of limitation until I got into the greater world.

FEYERICK: Sotomayor attended Princeton on scholarship, graduating with highest honors. After Yale Law School, where she was editor of the law journal, she chose to work as a prosecutor in Manhattan before taking the bench, where she worked on new sentencing rules with Chief Justice Kimba Wood.

WOOD: She really understood the people in her neighborhood, and what laws might help rehabilitate them and what laws would have a bad effect.

FEYERICK: Friends and colleagues describe her as smart, determined and modest.

JUDGE BARRINGTON DANIELS PARKER, JR., U.S. COURT OF APPEALS, 2nd COURT: If your on the opposite side of an issue with Sonia, you better be sure you have done your homework.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FEYERICK: And colleagues describe her work as sound and pragmatic and say Sotomayor often talks in wonder about the things she's achieved growing up where she did -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And she has a very compelling personal story, as you point out, Deb. Thank you very much.

Here's something else. Beyond her love of the New York Yankees, Sonia Sotomayor has an important connection to Major League Baseball. She made the 1995 baseball season possible, effectively ending the longest strike in professional sports history.

Then a federal district court judge, Sotomayor ruled in favor of the players over the owners in a walkout that had forced the World Series to be canceled the previous fall. One sportswriter hailed her at the time as a baseball hero in the league of legends: Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty right now. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: I've heard all those guys you mentioned, but I had no idea she had a role in ending that strike.

BLITZER: Yes. She ruled that the players were right, the owners were wrong. She ended it and they played ball.

CAFFERTY: That's the kind of stuff you learn watching this program every day.

BLITZER: Yes.

CAFFERTY: This you might already know. North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test near the Chinese border yesterday. It was a blast roughly equal to the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima at the end of World War II.

But this was more than just a test of a nuclear weapon. It's also a test of the Obama administration. And for that matter, a test of the rest of the civilized world as well.

Can our new president orchestrate an international response that will successfully pave the way for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program? Previous administrations have failed at this. And judging by the bellicosity of that little weirdo that runs North Korea, Kim Jong-il, there's no reason to hold out a lot of hope this time either.

But, President Obama clearly plans to act more aggressively than his predecessor after North Korea's first nuclear test more than two years ago. Yesterday, he called the test a blatant violation of international law and he vowed to take action. Russia and China have condemned the nuclear test as well, and so did the U.N. Security Council, for whatever that's worth. But we've been here and we've done this before when it comes to North Korea.

It remains to be seen if Russia and China will be on the same page as President Obama when it comes to taking the next step, whatever that turns out to be. And there are other countries to consider in this as well, like Japan and South Korea, both of which could be in danger of a direct attack.

North Korea is a rogue nation that continues to prove it's undeserving of a seat at the table of civilized nations.

Here's the question then: What can the international community do about North Korea's nuclear weapons program?

Go to cnn.com/caffertyfile, post a comment on my blog, and please come up with the correct answer. The world needs your help on this.

I don't know what you do with this guy.

BLITZER: Yes. Well, our viewers are going to tell us.

CAFFERTY: Well, let's hope so.

BLITZER: Thank you, Jack.

CAFFERTY: Yes.

BLITZER: The Obama administration has been bracing for this day for weeks. Will the president's Supreme Court nominee trigger an all- out war on Capitol Hill or a mere skirmish?

Stand by for early reaction from the senators who will be judging Sonia Sotomayor.

Plus, Sotomayor's past remarks to students, they are coming back to haunt her right now, her controversial comments on videotape about courts making policy.

And where the fight for same-sex marriage goes from here now that a California ban has been upheld by the state's highest court.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Even before President Obama had finished introducing his Supreme Court choice, supporters and opponents of Sonia Sotomayor had plenty to say about her and her nomination. But the views of senators may matter the most because they will be the ones who decide whether or not she gets the job.

Let's go to our congressional correspondent, Brianna Keilar. She's monitoring reaction up on the Hill.

What are you finding out, Brianna?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, from Democrats, expected praise. And from Republicans, no direct attacks, but some pointed questions.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR (voice-over): With Congress on recess, halls on Capitol Hill are empty, and most senators responded to the news of Sonia Sotomayor's nomination from their home states. Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee like Chuck Grassley promised to treat her fairly but zeroed in on a central concern.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: The committee has to take time to make sure the nominee will be true to the Constitution and apply the law rather than personal politics, feelings or preferences.

KEILAR: It's the Republican talking point. In a blizzard of press releases, GOP senators said Sotomayor must show she does not make her judgments based on personal or political preferences, personal preferences or political views, or ideology or personal opinion.

Republican lawyers are already combing Sotomayor's record and scrutinizing past statements like this one: "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." But Democrats on the Judiciary Committee are highlighting her background and experience.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: So, you combine the great legal mind and the down-to-earth experience, what a combination. She's going to bring that, and that's going to matter.

KEILAR: And committee chairman Patrick Leahy says she should appeal to both Democrats and Republicans. In a statement, he said, "She was twice confirmed by the Senate with strong, bipartisan support. Her record is exemplary."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR: The political rhetoric could really heat up here in the coming weeks, but both Democratic and Republican leadership sources that I've spoken with, they suggest -- at least that I've spoken with today, say that they expect Sotomayor to be confirmed to the Supreme Court in time for the court session to begin in October, unless something unexpected and very damaging comes out here in the confirmation process -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Brianna. Thanks very much.

Back in 1998, Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed to her current U.S. Appeals Court seat by a vote of 67-29. All 29 senators who voted against her were Republican, 11 of them still serve in the U.S. Senate today. Eight current members of the Senate voted for Sotomayor's confirmation in 1998. Out of the 25 GOP "yes" votes in all, one of those Republicans then, Arlen Specter, is a Democrat now.

Let's turn to CNN's internet reporter, Abbi Tatton. She's here. She has a video of Sotomayor that's making the rounds on YouTube. It's got some controversy.

Explain what we know, Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf,, it's an unguarded moment from 2005. Sonia Sotomayor at a panel at Duke University, speaking then, now unearthed and now on YouTube. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SOTOMAYOR: The court of appeals is where policy is made. And I know -- and I know this is on tape and I should never say that, because we don't make law. I know. OK. I know. I'm not promoting it, I'm not advocating it, I'm -- you know.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TATTON: That line, "Court of appeals is where policy is made," was in response to a question about clerking at the district or appeals court levels. Now that YouTube video is already making its way on to the Web sites of conservative organizations that are targeting Sotomayor as an activist judge -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thanks very much.

Let's bring in our Senior Political Analyst Gloria Borger and our Senior Legal Analyst Jeff Toobin.

Jeff, this is playing into the hands of those conservatives who are simply going to say she's an activist judge and she's not going to really be fair.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SR. LEGAL ANALYST: Well, you know, what's so weird about these Supreme Court fights is they are often conducted in this strange code. Like, I think most normal people would listen to that and say, well, policy is made there, what's so terrible about that?

Well, what that is seen as is an admission by Judge Sotomayor that courts of appeals don't just apply the law, don't just execute the law made by the legislators, they make their own law. They make policy. And that's seen as fighting words by certain conservatives.

Now, whether that's what she meant is certainly going to be up for debate. But that's the code word that conservatives are pointing to, policy, which is something they think legislators should make, not judges.

BLITZER: Yes.

How big of a deal you think politically, Gloria, this is going to be? GLORIA BORGER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I've spoken to a bunch of conservatives today, Wolf, who intend to use this YouTube clip, intend to use lots of clips from speeches she's given talking about how they believe that she will be an activist judge who will legislate from the bench. And so it's kind of interesting because, in a way, I think they intend to use more of her speeches and her appearances than lots of her court decisions, because there aren't a lot of sort of hot-button issues like abortion, those cultural issues in her court decisions. There is one on affirmative action, for example, but I think they're going to turn to these speeches and say you learn a lot about who Sonia Sotomayor is from these.

BLITZER: I know you've had a preliminary chance, Jeff, to go back and take a look at her record out there. Are we going to see more of this coming up, more controversy based on some comments or rulings, decisions that she's made?

TOOBIN: Well, certainly you will see controversy because it's in Republicans' interest to generate controversy. They want to defeat her. This is a major, major initiative of the Obama presidency.

Now, whether any of this controversy sticks, I think, is very much an open question. But you do have this comment. You have the earlier comment that suggests a certain identity politics, that the fact that she's a Latina affects her jurisprudence.

But is that something that will really prompt the American people to be outraged and generate opposition? It's hard for me to imagine any of these taking hold so far.

Most important that her judicial opinions, her actual work as a judge, does not seem to have generated much controversy. And she's been a judge for a long time. She's been a judge much longer than John Roberts was a judge. She was a judge even longer than Samuel Alito had been a judge.

So, she has a lot of experience, there are a lot of court decisions, but so far there does not appear to be a great deal of controversy generated by her actual work.

BORGER: And you know, Wolf, there is always a bit of tension between the outside groups who really, really want to have a big fight. Don't forget, they raise a lot of money off of Supreme Court nominations. And those folks inside the Senate, particularly those seven Republicans who actually voted for her when she was confirmed previously, who may not want to have a huge fight on this nomination. So the Republicans have to come up with a strategy of their own, and I don't think they've got one yet.

TOOBIN: Well, and just to pick up on what Gloria says, I think what's significant today is you haven't heard one Republican senator say "I will vote against her." I'm sure you remember 1987, when Robert Bjork was nominated. Ted Kennedy went right to the well of the Senate and said, in Robert Bjork's America there will be back-alley abortions and segregated lunch counters, and I'm going to fight him to the death. And he wound up winning that fight. You haven't seen one Republican senator even say he's voting against yet. I think that's a positive sing.

BLITZER: No. And we're going to have much more on this coming up, some of the danger zones Republicans might be facing in going after her too hard, given the fact she's a woman, that she's Hispanic. And the Republicans have had trouble with Hispanic votes lately, as we know.

Guys, stand by. We're going to be getting back to both of you here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

He was the first Latino U.S. attorney general of the United States. I'll be speaking with Alberto Gonzales about today's nomination of the first Hispanic to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Also ahead, he died almost two and a half years ago, but thanks to family rancor, entertainer James Brown's estate is only now being settled. How the "Godfather of Soul's" legacy is being divvied up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: He once reportedly came very close to becoming the first Latino justice on the highest court in the land. We're talking about the former attorney general, Alberto Gonzales. He's here in THE SITUATION ROOM to share his thoughts on today's Supreme Court nomination.

And it was a moment steeped in emotions for the judge who was selected for the high court seat today. From Sonia Sotomayor, reflections on the journey that brought her to that moment.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SOTOMAYOR: I hope that as the Senate and American people learn more about me, they will see that I am an ordinary person who has been blessed with extraordinary opportunities and experiences.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, North Korea runs more missile tests and stirs international outrage. We get extraordinary insight into the communist North through the eyes of countrymen who left it.

Same-sex marriage reemerges as a hot issue on a day of Judge Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination. We examine where President Obama's pick stands.

And President Obama heads to Vegas for a party fund-raiser. Nevada isn't exactly waiting for him with open arms. The governor says he's already cost the state a bundle.

I'm Wolf blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Judge Sonia Sotomayor says her heart is bursting with gratitude for all the people who helped her get to where she is today, the first Hispanic nominee to the United States Supreme Court. And if she's confirmed, the third woman ever to serve as a justice.

Let's listen to Judge Sotomayor at length, talking about her extraordinary opportunities and experiences.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SOTOMAYOR: I stand on the shoulders of countless people, yet there is one extraordinary person who is my life aspiration. That person is my mother, Celina Sotomayor.

(APPLAUSE)

My mother has devoted her life to my brother and me. And as the president mentioned, she worked often two jobs to help support us after dad died. I have often said that I am all I am because of her, and I am only half the woman she is.

Sitting next to her is Omar Lopez, my mom's husband and a man whom I have grown to adore. I thank you for all that you have given me and continue to give me. I love you.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

SOTOMAYOR: I chose to be a lawyer and ultimately a judge because I find endless challenge in the complexities of the law. I firmly believe in the rule of law as the foundation for all of our basic rights.

For as long as I can remember, I have been inspired by the achievement of our founding fathers. They set forth principles that have endured for than more two centuries. Those principles are as meaningful and relevant in each generation as the generation before.

It would be a profound privilege for me to play a role in applying those principles to the questions and controversies we face today.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Judge Sotomayor speaking earlier today at the White House, right after the president announced she was his pick to become a United States Supreme Court justice.

Let's get to a former member of the Bush administration who has a unique perspective on Sotomayor's nomination to the United States Supreme Court. That would be the former Attorney General of the United States Alberto Gonzales. He once was seen as a possible contender himself to be the first Latino on the high court.

Attorney General, thanks very much for coming in.

ALBERTO GONZALES, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: It's good to see you, Wolf.

BLITZER: How close were you, in your mind? Did you ever find out how close you were to being President Bush's nominee for the Supreme Court?

GONZALES: I didn't concern myself, Wolf, with -- with respect to my status on that short list. So...

BLITZER: But do you know if you were on the short list?

GONZALES: That's -- that's a question, I think, that is better posed to President Bush.

BLITZER: And -- but you're -- but you know you were, right?

GONZALES: Listen, I know that people -- people did consider me as a possible candidate for the Supreme Court, yes.

BLITZER: All right.

Well, now there's going to be -- well, there's a nominee already...

GONZALES: Yes.

BLITZER: ... who is Hispanic...

GONZALES: Yes.

BLITZER: ... a woman. How do you feel about that? You are the first Hispanic to serve as the attorney general of the United States. What do you think about her?

GONZALES: I think it's a proud day for the Sotomayor family. It's a historic day for the Hispanic community.

I don't think that any gender group or ethnic group is entitled to representation on our courts. I don't think that the outcome of a case should depend upon the ethnicity or gender of the judge, any more than the outcome of a case should depend on the ethnicity or gender of the prosecutor or defendant.

But, having said that, Wolf, this is a powerful message, a powerful message of hope and opportunity through this appointment, just like there's a powerful message sent when an African-American is elected president or an African-American or a Hispanic is appointed as attorney general of the United States. It's a powerful message that a president listens to. And this president obviously did.

BLITZER: Because you -- that picture that we saw earlier at the White House, the first African-American president now nominating the first Hispanic justice to become a United States Supreme Court justice, that says a lot about what's going on in our country right now.

GONZALES: Again, it says a lot about opportunities in our great country.

Obviously, this judge still needs to go through a confirmation process. There are questions, some concerns raised in certain quarters about her judicial philosophy. But that's what the confirmation process is all about. And -- and no nominee is entitled to a free confirmation process, an easy confirmation process.

She will be fully vetted, as she -- as she should be, because this is a lifetime appointment to our nation's highest court.

BLITZER: Here's what she said back in 2001. And I will put it up on the screen: "I would hope that a wise Latino 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."

That's generating some commotion out there.

GONZALES: I'm not sure what that -- what she was trying to say there.

I think as -- you know, I served on the Texas Supreme Court. And there were times -- there were cases in which I had to interpret a statute. I didn't like the outcome based upon that interpretation as I read the statute, the intention of the state legislature. But I felt obliged by my oath of office to honor that intent of the legislature.

I -- I think it's dangerous when judges impose their own personal views with respect to the outcome of -- of a particular case.

BLITZER: Did you -- when the president of the United States says he wants something -- someone who is empathetic and has had real- world, real-life experiences, is that good or bad?

GONZALES: I think we all -- we want -- we would like to think that all of our government officials are good people, compassionate people.

And, obviously, someone with this kind of story makes a very attractive candidate in a confirmation process. But to say that you empathize with someone, I think it's -- it's very, very difficult to predict the outcome of a case based upon whether or not a judge feels good about a result.

I think there ought to be predictability and certainty in the interpretation of our laws. I think that's the number-one requirement that -- that a president should look for in the nomination of a Supreme Court justice.

BLITZER: Based on what you know, the fact that the first President Bush named her to the -- to the federal bench to begin with -- she was confirmed. Then President Clinton got her to the court of appeals. She was confirmed. Based on what you know about her, do you think she's qualified to be a United States Supreme Court justice?

GONZALES: I don't -- I have no questions in my mind about her qualifications, in terms of education, experience.

A president is not required to nominate the most qualified person to the court. I think he's obliged to nominate someone who is well- qualified. And I think, by any measure, she is well-qualified.

I think there are legitimate questions about her judicial philosophy. And, again, that will be something that will -- that will be examined in the confirmation process.

BLITZER: Is -- as a Hispanic-American, how worried are you that, if Republicans, conservatives go really hard against her, that would further alienate the Hispanic vote against the Republicans in the -- in the years to come?

GONZALES: Well, obviously, Republicans are very desirous of the Hispanic vote.

But they have an obligation, a duty. They took an oath as well to the Constitution. And they have an obligation to vet every nominee carefully. Whether or not that nominee is Hispanic, white, African- American, male or female, they have an obligation. And I expect them to discharge that -- that obligation.

BLITZER: How worried are you, switching gears for a moment, that the Justice Department lawyers who wrote those legal opinions authorizing enhanced interrogation, how worried are you that the system now will come down on them, either disbarment or worse?

GONZALES: What I worry about, Wolf, is that good people, well- intentioned people, serving in a historic -- historically difficult time, dangerous time in our nation's history may be penalized for -- for doing their best, simply providing the best legal advice that they can.

I am afraid of the chilling effect that that's going to have on future lawyers at the Department of Justice.

BLITZER: Because you were the White House counsel at that time. This was before you became the attorney general.

GONZALES: That's correct.

BLITZER: And were you involved in that -- in some of those legal opinions early on?

GONZALES: Well, what I can say is, is that I worked with the Department of Justice ensuring that legal advice was provided.

But, at the end of the day, it's the responsibility of the Department of Justice to provide the legal guides on behalf of the executive branch. BLITZER: So, are you in any -- do you think -- are you afraid that you could be in any legal jeopardy right now?

GONZALES: I -- Wolf, I stand by my record. I did my best to defend our country during very difficult times. So, I'm -- I am proud of my service.

BLITZER: All right.

Attorney General, thanks very much for coming in.

GONZALES: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Right now, same-sex marriage remains banned in California -- ahead, the state's high court ruling and the reaction from both sides and the fate of thousands of gay couples who already are married.

And a former GOP presidential candidate gives backhanded praise to his party's leader. Is Michael Steele doing a good job because he's African-American? Donna Brazile and Ed Rollins, they are standing by for our "Strategy Session."

And later: A cruise ship passenger vanishes.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In California, the battle over same-sex marriage takes another turn. The state Supreme Court has upheld Proposition 8, reversing legalized gay marriage.

CNN's Dan Simon is joining us from San Francisco right now.

What does it mean, first of all, this decision today, Dan, for the thousands of people -- the same-sex marriages that did take place?

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is the same California Supreme Court which only last year ruled in favor of same- sex marriage. Then voters had their say with Proposition 8.

And what the justices are basically saying in this ruling is that they have no business overturning the will of the majority.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SIMON (voice-over): They streamed out of the courthouse holding the thick 136-page ruling, quickly scanning the pages. Moments later, hundreds of gay rights activists began chanting in (AUDIO GAP) "Shame on you" -- their words directed at the Supreme Court justices who upheld Proposition 8.

By a 6-1 margin, the court ruled it does not violate the California Constitution (AUDIO GAP) country's largest state.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's absolutely outrageous that, in the United States of America, this day and age, that the Constitution is -- is -- is able to deny the rights of Americans.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: All right, we're having some technical problems, Dan, with your piece.

But let's -- let's move this story forward. The Supreme Court, the highest court in California, rules that Proposition 8, which reversed same-sex marriage, that stands. But what happens next?

SIMON: Well, what happens next is, gay rights advocates are going to put this issue back on the ballot. And Yes! on Equality -- it's one of the largest gay-rights organizations in California -- is already vowing to put this issue back on the ballot as early as next year.

But, again, what this ruling does -- there two things here. Number one, going forward, same-sex marriage here in the state of California is considered banned, cannot happen. However, the 18,000 or so same-sex couples who got married prior to Proposition 8, those marriages are still considered valid.

But we should tell you that this issue is far from over. Expect a marriage issue to appear on the ballot perhaps as early as next year.

BLITZER: All right.

SIMON: Wolf.

BLITZER: Dan Simon, thanks very much, historic day out in California.

A former presidential hopeful delivers a backhanded compliment to the Republican Party's new leader. He praised Michael Steele for the job he's doing. So, why is Mike Huckabee backpedaling a bit?

And Barack Obama bound for Las Vegas -- why Nevada's governor isn't exactly rolling out the red carpet.

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BLITZER: Follow-up on the California Supreme Court decision today, saying that -- no to same-sex marriage in California, at least for now.

Let's talk about it in our "Strategy Session."

Joining us, our Democratic strategist the CNN political contributor Donna Brazile, and Republican strategist, our CNN political contributor Ed Rollins.

It was interesting, the reaction from Arnold Schwarzenegger, Donna, the governor of California: "While I believe that one day either the people or courts will recognize gay marriage, as governor of California, I will uphold the decision of the California Supreme Court."

Proponents of gay marriage, they are already beginning to go forward with yet another proposition that would reverse the earlier one.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, across the country tonight, in over 108 cities, there will be rallies to begin the education campaign that is needed to put this initiative back on the ballot some time in 2010 or 2012.

And, also, Wolf, I think it's important to say this. Twelve states and -- and the District of Columbia now recognize some form of gay marriage, or civil union or domestic partnership. So, this is only a matter of time.

Martin Luther King once said that the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. It also bends toward equality. And I think this matter will not go away. And, pretty soon, they will have the votes needed to overturn that proposition, and it will become a law in California.

BLITZER: Ed, is Schwarzenegger right when he says that, one day, either the people or the courts will recognize gay marriage?

ED ROLLINS, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, certainly, there's going to be another battle. And it's very close, as Proposition 8 was very close. It was a presidential election.

And, actually, many people in the African-American community who turned out to support Barack Obama who are good churchgoing people were probably the margin of -- of -- of defeat.

You know, the -- the -- the key thing here is the initiative referendum is a very important part of the political process in California. And the court basically said voters have a right to overturn laws and to set laws. And I think that's -- that's an important decision. That's what the governor is going to enforce.

I think this battle will go on until it's successful. There's -- there's passions on both sides. And, at the end of the day, I think that, you know, the Supreme Court will have to deal with it, because you now have 18,000 people in California who are married by the law of California. You are going to have people married in other states who will need rights when they move around.

So, I think, eventually, it will come to the U.S. Supreme Court, and that will probably be the ultimate decision...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: You have heard the analysis out in California, Donna, that African-Americans in California voted in large numbers against gay marriage and were probably decisive in -- in defeating it.

BRAZILE: I don't know if they were decisive, but I do know that there were many who did not understand really the proposition well enough.

And this is going to be, I'm sure, a target for the organizers next year, is to really go out there and galvanize the African- American community. This is an issue of civil rights and equality. And I think, if it's put to the African-American community in that way and the Hispanic and everyone else, there will be tremendous support for it.

It is a matter of civil rights and equality. That's as simple and as plain as you can speak it.

BLITZER: All right, well...

(CROSSTALK)

ROLLINS: But you know the other side, Donna? It's obviously -- it's an emotional issue.

BRAZILE: Yes.

ROLLINS: Many -- many in the religious right feel this is a very, very critical issue. And, so, you are going to find very, very strong opposition on both sides.

BRAZILE: But it is also a matter of equal justice under the law.

Now, with 18,000 people who will have their marriage recognized and affirmed, and now you have another distinct class of people that can have some part of their civil rights. But what about everyone else? So, I -- I think it's a matter of justice and equality, and it should be just one measure for that.

BLITZER: All right, let me -- let me move on and show you this video of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.

And I know, Ed, you once worked with Mike Huckabee when he was running for president of the United States.

He had this exchange over the weekend. And I'm going to play it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), FORMER ARKANSAS GOVERNOR: But I think he has sought to be, first of all, a very strong spokesperson. I'm not sure anyone else could be as effective in challenging the Obama policies any more so than Michael. And...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why is that?

HUCKABEE: Well, I believe that no one is going to be able to use the racism charge.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, he was talking about Michael Steele, of course, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, who himself is African-American.

Ed, when you -- when you hear that phrased like that by Governor Huckabee, what do you think?

ROLLINS: Well, first of all, he should have been focusing, and not signing books, on what he was saying.

Mike Huckabee doesn't need me to explain him. He got a long ways before he ever met me. But I think the bottom line here is -- is, Michael Steele is chairman of our party not because he's an African- American. And there are other people who basically have an option to -- to criticize the president on his policies.

A lot of Americans salute the fact that we have an African- American, just as a lot of Americans are going to be very enthusiastic about this new justice of our court, who came up through very compelling stories.

I think, to a certain extent, that the -- the -- the process, whatever Mike was trying to say, was not thought out. He's a guy who has had tremendous support in the African-American community as a governor, got 45 percent of the vote when he was running. And I think, to a certain extent, I don't think he meant it in any way, shape or form the way it's sort of being misconstrued at this point.

BLITZER: I mean, Donna, that video that we just showed -- and we took it, by the way, from "The Tennessean" Web site -- it says that, "No one is going to be able" -- this is what Huckabee says, referring to Michael Steele -- "No one is going to be able to use the racism charge against him," because he's African-American.

What did you think when you heard that?

BRAZILE: Well, it's troubling, because I agree with Ed Rollins.

I mean, I know Mike Huckabee well enough to know that, had he been focused, he would not have made such a -- a very troubling comment.

And let's -- let's be very honest, Wolf. We are afraid to sometimes talk about racism and race and gender and all these other issues. But the truth is, is that President Obama has done a fabulous job as president. And whether you disagree or agree with his policies, it's -- it's fine to critique it.

But to -- to all of a sudden say that someone can do a better job because he or she may be black, it's -- that's just old-school, and we need to rid ourselves of that form of politics.

BLITZER: All right.

Unless, Ed, you want to add anything, I'm going to end it.

ROLLINS: I -- I couldn't -- couldn't add anything to that.

BLITZER: OK, Good. Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

ROLLINS: Thank you. Great.

BLITZER: President Obama heads to Las Vegas this evening, where he will be getting a high-level snub -- why the governor of Nevada is saying thanks, but no thanks, to the commander in chief.

Also ahead, a milestone for the Latino community -- the first Hispanic nominee to the highest court in the land, but it's a mixed blessing for some Republicans.

And the inside story of the return of a young fugitive from chemotherapy -- the promises he made to protect his mom from being arrested.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How do you feel?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How you doing, Daniel?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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BLITZER: Let's get right back to Jack for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, the question this hour is: What can the international community do, if anything, about North Korea's nuclear weapons program?

Marcus in Seattle writes: "If Obama has the courage, he sends Hillary Clinton to China, has her make a deal with the Chinese government that, together, they overthrow Kim Jong Il, put in power someone who cares about the North Korean people, and offers substantial aid from the U.S. and China in order to get the country fed in the short term. That maneuver would assist China-U.S. relations for years to come."

Nick writes: "Same thing the international community did when India, Pakistan, and Israel obtained illegal nuclear weapons -- nothing. It's irrational to think that a country can be told not to obtain nuclear weaponry by a country that has nuclear weaponry. We should stop violating international law, begin dismantling our own nuclear weapons if we want other countries to do the same."

Jeff in Connecticut says: "North Korea is not a responsible nation and abuses its people. They have repeatedly proven this to the world. They must and will be disarmed. It should be swift, well- planned, multinational, and thorough enough to free the oppressed and abused populace. Donald Rumsfeld should not be consulted."

Jerry in Washington writes: "It's probably going to be an unpopular idea, but take a look at what the Israelis did to Iraq in 1981. Iraq isn't pursuing nuclear weapons anymore, now, is it?"

Linda in Arizona: "I think China is the key to this. If we can come up with something persuasive, present -- present it to China, they are the ones little Kim will listen to."

And Scott writes: "Kim Jong Il is crazier then Saddam ever was, and he actually has WMDs. If we weren't already fighting two wars, I have a feeling the question would have a much easier answer than it does."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to my blog at CNN.com/caffertyfile. Look for yours there, among hundreds of others.

It's a problem, Wolf.

BLITZER: It certainly is. And looks like it's going to get worse, Jack.

CAFFERTY: Yes.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now: President Obama calls her an inspiring woman. She rose from a housing project to become a federal judge. Sonia Sotomayor has now been picked as the Supreme Court's first Hispanic justice. But opponents are already aiming at her record and her philosophy. I will discuss the president's pick with the president's senior adviser, David Axelrod. He's here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Also, first, a nuclear test, now missile firings -- as concern mounts about what North Korea will do next, we will get an exclusive look at life inside North Korea from defectors who risked everything to escape.

And President Obama heading to Las Vegas to raise money for Democrats, but he also raised tempers when he blasted banks for spending bailout money there. Can he repair the damage?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.