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THE SITUATION ROOM
News Conference on Slain Florida Couple; Sotomayor Confirmation Hearing
Aired July 15, 2009 - 15:59 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: All right. We'll see if it happens.
Thanks so much, Chad. Appreciate that.
MYERS: All right. You're welcome.
WHITFIELD: All right. And as we said, momentarily, a press conference is to be under way in Escambia County, Florida. That involves the couple that was murdered with a house full of children.
More details as we get it.
Federal investigators, by the way, are also on this case. Drug Enforcement Administration investigates are now involved. These new details cast plenty of new doubt on hopes that this is an open-and- shut case.
Watch this report from CNN's David Mattingly. It's the love story at the core of this crime and how an ordinary family grew to extraordinary proportions.
DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Outside the spacious Pensacola home, a small memorial for an extraordinary couple. Byrd and Melanie Billings, their love immeasurable, their deaths unthinkable.
ASHLEY MARKHAM, DAUGHTER OF MELANIE BILLINGS: Our mom and dad only had love in their lives. Since the day they met 19 years ago, they knew they were soul mates.
MATTINGLY: Soul mates with a calling to let their family grow. Byrd and Melanie each had two biological children from first marriages. Then together they adopted 13 other children, several with developmental disabilities. Others came from abused homes and drug- addicted parents. All embraced with open arms and unconditional love.
MARKHAM: To our mom and dad, their children were perfect, angels that God provided them with to love eternally.
MATTINGLY: For the Billings, the affection overflowed, from getting the kids ready for sleep to sending them off to school. YVONNE HAHN, SCHOOL BUS DRIVER: They would get on the bus every morning, she would call them her little princesses, and then one of the little boys, I know this summer, he would always get on the bus and he would blow her kisses. And I'd say, "Ms. Billings, he's blowing you a kiss," and she would blow him a kiss back.
MATTINGLY: Financially, the couple appeared secure. They were local business owners, operating a string of used car dealerships. They also ran a financial services company.
Public records show the Billings took out two mortgages on their nine bedroom estate, one for $300,000 in 2003, another for $265,000 last year. The house is worth an estimated $700,000.
They also had an elaborate surveillance system, but authorities say it was there to keep an eye on the kids.
SHERIFF TOM DART, ESCAMBIA COUNTY, FLORIDA: Those are special-needs children. You cannot live in an open environment with that number of children that they have. So your surveillance systems, your security systems and those safety measures were place there for what? For the safety of the children.
MATTINGLY: Tragedy has marked the Billings before, three times, with the deaths of two adopted children and one biological child.
Now, in the wake of the killings, a pledge from a family torn apart to stay together.
MARKHAM: We know our parents are watching over us now, reunited with their three angels in heaven. They will give us strength to make it through the hard times and their love to make the world a better place, just as they always did.
MATTINGLY (on camera): The Billings did make plans for the care of their children in case something ever happened to them. A spokeswoman says the children will be kept together as a family.
WHITFIELD: And right now, that press conference is beginning there in Escambia County, Florida.
Let's listen in.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)
DART: ... Orange Beach, Alabama, by the Orange Beach Police Department. It is my understanding that she's currently being cooperative. She's coming back to Escambia County.
It was reported by someone that she's in custody. I want to state emphatically that at this time, Ms. Long is not in custody with the Escambia County Sheriff's Office or any other law enforcement agency in Florida, to the best of my knowledge, that she is coming back of her own volition with her own attorney to discuss the issues with us. We expect her here hopefully within 30 minutes.
QUESTION: How was she caught?
DART: She was identified by our "be on the lookout" order by the Orange Beach Police Department.
QUESTION: Where was she going?
DART: I understand she was near or at one of the marinas.
DART: Exactly. She was identified and located by the Orange Beach PD and approached.
QUESTION: Who is her attorney?
DART: That, sir, I do not know. I was not in consultation with him.
DART: I understand -- no, sir, she's not being transported back. She's with her attorney, as I understand. They're following us back.
QUESTION: What was she doing at the marina?
DART: I have no knowledge of that.
QUESTION: Can you give us some sense of the reaction you got when you first put out the lookout area?
DART: You mean from the community, or from what? Again, a flood of calls from friends and neighbors.
Again, she had been incognito, if you will, for approximately 48 hours. So, again, we were concerned about her personal safety. And we were getting calls from folks that said yes, we had spotted her within the last couple of days, and of course that leads to more information, more leads, et cetera, and then of course she's located in Orange Beach.
QUESTION: Was she aware that you guys were looking for her?
DART: To the best of my knowledge, no.
QUESTION: When you say incognito, what do you mean?
DART: She was just not in the public eye. She was not making contact with her normal routine friends and neighbors, as I understand it.
QUESTION: Has she changed her appearance at all?
QUESTION: Hiding or...
DART: I have not on observed Ms. Long at this time. I cannot address that. QUESTION: Was there anything unusual about the circumstances with which you found her?
DART: I cannot release that information at this time.
QUESTION: Does she have a boat at the marina? Was there a sense that she was trying to escape?
DART: I will not address that issue at this time.
QUESTION: Neighbors said they saw the red van that was in the surveillance video at her home (INAUDIBLE). Have you known any connection about that? Do you know if that was van was there?
DART: I know that there is a red van that is part of this investigation. Whether or not it is that red van, I have no verification of that.
QUESTION: What is the nature of her relationship -- is there anything more than her being a landlord to Gonzalez?
DART: There obviously is a friendship. She's been observed transporting his wife and children at times, so we can say that there's that sort of relationship.
QUESTION: What information are you hoping to get from her?
DART: Well, we know that she was associated with Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Jr. up until the day of the murders. And so, again, we would like to get information from her about his activities, whereabouts, movements, those sorts of things. Again, she's a person of interest because of her close association with him.
QUESTION: You mentioned that she was one of two persons of interest that you were looking for. Can you speak to now the other person of interest that you're looking for...
DART: The other person of interest that we're looking for is associated again -- associated, again with the security and video surveillance system at the Billings compound.
QUESTION: Did that person work for a company that had the surveillance system?
DART: That person does not.
QUESTION: Do you have an identity on that person?
DART: We have several identities. We have, again, persons of interest. OK? We have narrowed it, we believe, to one. To one person, we believe.
QUESTION: Sheriff, were you looking at the marina? Were you sort of watching something at the marina and you found her? Were the Orange County officials alerted to be there looking?
DART: No, sir. I would not speak to that issue. I have no knowledge of that issue.
I, again, have just been advised that that is where she is located. And let me be specific. We did not direct in any way another agency to look in the marina or airports, those sorts of things. That was not what the order was about.
QUESTION: Because again, I'm struck by the fact that throughout this case there's been some remarkable police work and some remarkable breaks.
DART: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: Was this a break or was it sort of a (INAUDIBLE)?
DART: We communicate well in the South.
QUESTION: It's obvious that this plot was planned thoroughly over -- I guess you said 30 days. If she's been in contact with Gonzalez Jr., do we believe she knew about this plot prior to being carried out?
DART: I will not speak to that issue at this time.
QUESTION: You said earlier there were two possibilities with the security system, somebody inside that company who was supposed to clip (ph) it off, or somebody at the house who was supposed to...
WHITFIELD: All right. You've been listening to the Escambia County Sheriff's Department there in a press conference updating.
They were looking for a realtor, a Pamela Laverne Long. They did locate her in a neighboring county. The Orange Beach Police Department apparently approached her.
It's unclear, however, exactly why they are looking for this woman or why they have been looking for Pamela Long. It is believed that perhaps she may have rented some property to one of the suspects involved who is now been connected to the murder of the couple there in Escambia County, Byrd and Melanie Billings. When we get a better explanation as to why Pamela Long -- why they have apprehended her, or why they are questioning her, we'll be able to bring that to you on this ongoing investigation.
Also, still waiting for questions as to why the DEA is now being involved in this investigation as well. When we get more information, we'll bring that to you.
Meantime, we want to go to our continuing network coverage of the hearings of Sonia Sotomayor hosted by Wolf Blitzer.
Back to Washington now.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Fred, thanks very much. I want to get right back into the hearings. They've just resumed, and Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the committee, has been asking serious questions about when, if ever, foreign or international law should be used in helping to interpret the Constitution.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R-AL), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: And I think that's a fair summary of that speech which others can read and make up their own mind.
You were asked about the Legal Defense Fund, of which you were a member of the board for 12 years. And in response to Senator Graham's question, you say you've never seen any briefs, and that the main focus of your work at the organization was fund-raising.
Is that accurate?
SONIA SOTOMAYOR, SUPREME COURT NOMINEE: When I was responding to the senator, I was talking about the board in general. I belong to many committees, and so I did other things besides fund-raising. But I was beginning to explain what the structure of the board was and what the primary responsibility of board members is. But clearly, board members serve other functions in an organization.
SESSIONS: You did serve on the litigation committee, and boards are supposed to, I would think, and legally are required to, attend (ph) in the activities of the organization that they're a member of. And then you have committees of the board who do various things.
I'm looking at a June of '87 document report, minutes of the board, the litigation committee. "Sonia Sotomayor reported that the committee, in addition to reviewing and recommending a litigation program, had identified three initiatives."
In October of '87 -- I'm just looking at some of the documents we were given -- a litigation report. "Chairman Sotomayor summarized the activities of the committee over the last several months, which included the review of the litigation efforts of the past and present, and initial exploration of potential areas of interest."
"Member Sotomayor advised that a preliminary report would be provided at the January meeting." And then at the January meeting, there's about a 50-page document summarizing 30 or more cases that the board had undertaken. A number of them are pretty significant and very consistent with the kind of case that we had in the firefighters' case, where the board had filed litigation to really basically insist that you have perfect harmony between the applicants for a job and those who are selected for promotions.
Isn't that true, that you were more active than you may have suggested to Senator Graham yesterday?
SOTOMAYOR: No, because as I said, I started to describe the role of the board generally, and we were not addressing the question of what I did or how I participated. That memo has to be examined in context. The memo was a moment in our 12-year history where the board was planning a retreat to think about what direction, if any, we should consider moving into or not. We were not reviewing the individual cases to see if the individual cases -- what positions were taken, the type of strategies that...
SESSIONS: Didn't you know the cases that -- the positions the organization was...
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT), CHAIRMAN, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Senator...
SESSIONS: Well, my time was running out.
LEAHY: The senator's running out and I was wondering if you would like to answer.
SESSIONS: I'll let you answer, but I just...
SOTOMAYOR: The end of my answer was the fund had been involved in a series of areas -- employment, public health, education, and others. And so, the broader question for the fund was, should we be considering some other areas of interest to the community?
We held a retreat in which speakers from a variety of different civil rights organizations, academics, a number of people came and just talked to us. I don't actually remember there being a firm decision that followed that, but it was a part of a conversation, the sort of retreats that even my court has engaged in -- what are we doing? What are we thinking about. But it wasn't a review of each individual case to judge its merits.
LEAHY: Judge, there's been a lot of talk about the Maloney (ph) case. I should note it's not what you said. It's what Justice Scalia's opinion for the Supreme Court said. And his decision left in place the 123-year-old Supreme Court precedence on guns, did it not?
SOTOMAYOR: Justice Scalia, in a footnote in the Heller (ph) decision, noted the court's holding that the Second Amendment wasn't incorporated against...
LEAHY: The only reason I mention that, I've been a gun owner since I was probably 13 years old. I've seen nothing done by the Supreme Court, by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, by the Congress, or by our state legislature that is going to change one way or the other the ownership I have of the guns I now have.
SEN. HERB KOHL (D-WI), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Thank you very much, Senator.
BLITZER: All right. So, you just heard the ranking Republican, Jeff Sessions, ask some tough, very pointed questions. Clearly, he's still not on board. He's not ready to confirm her as a Supreme Court justice.
There was a whole exchange he had once again with her on her "wise Latina" comment, another whole exchange on guns and the Second Amendment, where she stands on that. And also, as you heard, foreign law, international law, when, if ever, should it be used to help determine constitutional law in the United States?
So, we'll take a quick break, continue our coverage of these historic hearings.
Remember, CNN.com is streaming all of this live, uninterrupted.
Our coverage will continue on CNN right after this.
BLITZER: The United States Supreme Court, that's what is the issue right now. One of the justices has retired, David Souter. There's an opening, and Sonia Sotomayor is being grilled right now by the Senate Judiciary Committee to see if she's ready to step up and become an associate justice of the Supreme Court.
It looks like she's not going to have much trouble in terms of getting the necessary votes, but Republicans are asking some very, very pointed questions in this, the second round of questioning. And we just heard lengthy exchanges involving the ranking Republican, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, including this exchange he had with Judge Sotomayor on the whole issue of judicial activism...
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SESSIONS: Justice O'Connor's approach and truth was that judges, under the American ideal, should reach the same decision if they can put aside all their biases and prejudices. And you seem to say can in your approach and throughout that speech that backgrounds, sympathies and prejudices can impact how you rule, and you could expect a different outcome.
How would you respond to that?
SOTOMAYOR: Senator, I want to give you complete assurance that I agree with Senator Hatch on his decision -- his definition of activism. If that's his definition, that judges should not be using their personal biases, their personal experiences, their personal prejudices in reaching decision, and that's how he defines activism, then I'm in full agreement with him.
To the extent that my words have led some to believe that I think a particular group hasn't -- has -- is better than another in reaching a decision based on their experiences, my rhetorical device failed. It failed because it left an impression that I believe something that I don't.
(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: All right. An important exchange on the whole "Latina woman" comment that's still generating follow-up questions by Republicans. And Jeff Sessions clearly was concerned that she might not necessarily be ready to become a Supreme Court justice.
John King, everything we've been hearing from him, in the interview we did with him, especially, his questioning seems to suggest he's not one of those Republicans who might vote to confirm.
JOHN KING, CNN SR. NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely right on that point. And what it appears to be in the second round, it will be very interesting as we move on to the other Republicans. He seems to be using it to go back through the list of the reasons, the "wise Latina" speech, her views on affirmative action, her views on guns.
There are three or four themes. Property rights will come up when they move on to other Republicans, where the Republicans who are going to vote no seem to be using this second round to, again, almost give her another chance so that they can go back when they have to explain everything and say these were the top issues for me, she didn't meet my test.
BLITZER: And the other issue that was coming up was international or foreign law. He kept coming back to that issue, Jeff Sessions, as well.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: He did, and I think she kind of backtracked a little bit today. She said today flatly that foreign law cannot be used as a precedent, period, end of sentence.
BLITZER: In interpreting the Constitution.
BORGER: In interpreting the Constitution.
Now, in a speech she had given previously, she said judges shouldn't flinch about referring to foreign law. So, I think what we saw today is a clarification of her position because she understands that this is something that's been very important on the court. Justice Kennedy has been criticized, as Jeff knows, for referring to foreign law. And this is really something that conservatives do not like.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SR. LEGAL ANALYST: Senator Sessions portrayed this as a debate principally between Justice Ginsburg and Justice Scalia. In fact, it's really Justice Kennedy and Justice Scalia.
Justice Kennedy cited international law and the laws of other countries in his decisions outlawing the death penalty for children and his decision outlawing prosecutions of consensual sodomy for gay people, Lawrence v. Texas and the case about the juvenile death penalty. Those two cases were really the issue that put this subject on the map, and those were only in 2003, 2005.
BLITZER: And Justice Kennedy is the swing vote in that 4-4 balance, if you will, on the Supreme Court.
TOOBIN: Usually on the conservative side, but in those two cases siding with the liberals.
BLITZER: And she would obviously be on the liberal side, assuming she is a real liberal, although we're not sure. You know?
MARIA ECHAVESTE, SR. FELLOW, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: I think what's really interesting was the introduction of a letter of support for her from a Hispanic conservative born-again Christian group, supporting her nomination and urging her confirmation.
BLITZER: These were the letters that the chairman, Patrick Leahy, read while we were in recess.
ECHAVESTE: Right. And I think that that actually is very interesting. I had a call yesterday from someone on the conservative side who thinks that she may get as many as 80 votes, because what is the downside for a Republican to vote for her once having made these cases?
ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: There may be a rare case or two where Judge Sotomayor actually meant what she said, and one of the things she said at one point was that she was a liberal. And some of my best friends are liberals. There's nothing wrong with that. But those are her own words.
As a matter of fact, when she was talking about her prosecutorial experience, she said, "I'm a liberal, but I am still outraged by violent crimes," as if it requires a violent crime to be outraged about that. So, again, those are her words. It's not any mischaracterization, I think, of who she is.
BLITZER: It will be interesting, Candy, because the next Republican to ask questions -- they're allowed a maximum of 20 minutes -- is Orrin Hatch of Utah, who seems to be much more receptive, much more open to the notion of actually voting to confirm.
CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: He is. And he's old school in the sense that he believes when the president gets elected, he gets to have a Supreme Court nominee he wants, provided that nominee is qualified. And no one here has questioned her qualifications to sit on the Supreme Court. In fact, they've said she's got more experience on the bench than anybody currently sitting there when they went on to the court.
So, you know, you're right. I mean, in the end, I think this is going where we knew it was going to go from the get-go, but I think you are going to watch both Orrin Hatch and probably Lindsey Graham begin to show their hands a little bit. They have kind of gradually over time. I think we're about to see them do that, because they're wrappinging up, sort of -- I mean, all of them get 20 minutes, but that's sort of a wrap-up for the Senate, and we're going to begin to see where they're going.
And I want to play this little clip from then-Senator Barack Obama back in 2006. He was explaining why he didn't vote for the Bush- nominated Supreme Court justices -- Samuel Alito, specifically.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS: There are some who believe that the president, having won the election, should have complete authority to appoint his nominee, and the Senate should only examine whether or not the justice is intellectually capable and an all-around good guy. That once you get beyond intellect and personal character, there should be no further questions as to whether the judge should be confirmed.
I disagree with this view. I believe firmly that the Constitution calls for the Senate to advise and consent. I believe that it calls for meaningful advice and consent that includes an examination of a judge's philosophy, ideology, and record.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right. A very specific statement explaining why he would disagree with, let's say, a Lindsey Graham or an Orrin Hatch, for that matter.
Candy, you were making that point.
CROWLEY: Absolutely. And, in fact, presidents evolve once they get into office. "Evolve" is a word that politicians love.
And we're seeing this on a couple things up on the Hill -- in health care and things that he's now asking for. It's one thing when you're on the campaign trail, which, by the way, he really was when he made that statement. We saw earlier one of -- Lindsey Graham, in fact, had said he voted against him for political reasons on the road to the White House, and a lot of people wouldn't argue with that.
BLITZER: Well, because the accusation against then-Senator Obama, he was appealing to the Democratic base in rejecting these nominees.
KING: He also was a legislator defending the prerogative of the legislative branch. Now he's an executive, Wolf. And guess what? He has a somewhat different opinion.
But you're going to see this play out, because he will pay a price for that remark, a political price. And some Republicans who vote for Judge Sotomayor will adopt what I'll call the Hatch standard, that a president gets to make his pick, and unless they have something egregious in their record, you might not have picked them, you might not agree with them, but a qualified person, you vote for them even though you have some disagreements.
That's the Hatch standard. You'll have some Republicans cite the Obama standard, that this is my call to make, I disagree with this person, and President Obama has told me this is how I should vote.
BLITZER: Would he have gotten the Democratic presidential nomination if he had voted to confirm those Republican nominees?
KING: I think yes. Yes, I do.
The issue in the primaries -- it would have been a contentious issue, it would have been a point of fighting, but the issue in the Democratic primaries was the Iraq War. And he was to the left of Senator Clinton on the Iraq war, and he raised money and he out- organized her.
Would there have been a fight about this? Most likely yes.
BLITZER: You don't agree?
BORGER: Well, all the Democratic presidential candidates voted the same way. If one of them had voted differently, that would have been a problem. So, I think we were all kind of in the same boat.
BLITZER: They all voted to reject Alito.
BORGER: That's right. They were all in the same boat on this one.
But, you know, you don't hear the president talk a lot about advise and consent. You're not hearing President Obama saying...
TOOBIN: They like the consent part.
BORGER: Yes, right. But...
TOOBIN: But not so much the advice.
BLITZER: All right. Orrin Hatch is on deck. He's going to be asking his questions, and we presumably will get a little hint. Will he vote to confirm Sonia Sotomayor?
Our coverage continues after this.
BLITZER: Confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor continuing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. We will get back to what's going on in that hearing room.
But let's check in with Fredricka. She is monitoring some other important stories developing right now -- Fred.
FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thanks, Wolf.
The investigation into an Iranian passenger plane crash is under way. Officials say all 168 people on board were killed when the Russian- made jet crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran's International Airport. Emergency workers are searching for the plane's flight data recorders. A witness says the jet's tail was on fire as it circled before slamming into a field.
And political observers say Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is trying to regain the diplomatic spotlight. She delivered a major policy address to the Council on Foreign Relations today. Clinton aides insist she has not been backbenched. But a broken elbow last month forced her to cancel international trips and miss numerous meetings. Tomorrow, she embarks on her first trip abroad in over a month.
And, at his retirement ceremony, General David McKiernan admitted he was -- quote -- "dismayed, disappointed and more than a little embarrassed" when he was ousted as the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan. A year in his appointment, Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked for McKiernan's resignation, saying he needed new thinking and ideas in Afghanistan.
McKiernan says he eventually accepted the change out of respect for his profession.
And forecasters are keeping an eye on Tropical Storm Dolores. It has formed far off Mexico's Pacific Coast and has a maximum sustained wind of about 40 miles per hour. Hurricane Carlos is also in the open Pacific, but it's losing strength and is now a Category 1 storm -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Fred, thanks very much.
Just want to show our viewers a live picture of the space shuttle Endeavour. There it is. It's on the pad there. At 6:03, it's supposed to be launched. It's the sixth time they are going to try it. Right now, we're told there is about a 60 percent chance of it happening because of the weather.
But we will watch it. And if, in fact, it does take off, you will see it live in THE SITUATION ROOM at 6:03.
Let's go back into the hearing room right now.
Orrin Hatch, the senior Republican from Utah, is asking questions of Sonia Sotomayor.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)
JUDGE SONIA SOTOMAYOR, SUPREME COURT NOMINEE: ... would protect that interest.
SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: Sure.
SOTOMAYOR: And, so, that is one of the misnomers about the right to privacy.
And, when I say misnomer, it can be misleading, because it's not that the -- I have not viewed what the court has been doing as creating a right that doesn't exist in the words of the Constitution.
What I understand the court to be saying is, OK, there's this situation. Someone's privacy is being affected by this government regulation. Does the right in the Constitution, the liberty clause of the due process provision, protect the individual from that invasion of their privacy? People, in shorthand, have called this a right to privacy, but, in my view, what the court is doing is saying, states, police officers, with the unreasonable search and seizures, you can't do this act; you can do this act in searching and seizure.
SOTOMAYOR: They're not creating a new right of privacy. They're just saying, how does this right that exists in this provision, and the Constitution has these words, what does it mean in this factual setting?
HATCH: Well, as you know, when they -- when they did the Griswold case, there was -- there was no language "right to privacy" in the Constitution.
But they determined that there -- that through (INAUDIBLE) and other approaches, that they could find that. At another point in the hearing, you said -- quote -- "I don't believe we should bend the Constitution under any circumstances. It says what it says" -- unquote.
Now, you know, I -- I think, if you -- if you could, maybe you can describe some ways that the court can bend the Constitution.
SOTOMAYOR: I said you can't. The words are the words. A court can't be looking to ignore the words or to change them. What it does is apply those words to each situation.
I stand by that answer today, as I did then.
SOTOMAYOR: The Constitution has rights.
SOTOMAYOR: They are, some of them -- I'm sorry, Senator.
HATCH: I think what I'm saying, in light of the statement I just asked you about, that we cannot read rights into the Constitution, as you have said. Would you agree that the Supreme Court bends the Constitution when it does read rights into the Constitution?
SOTOMAYOR: What I understand the court to be doing in those situations in which it has recognized the protection of certain privacy interests and other interests is that it's applied those broad words to the facts of the situation be -- before them, and has determined that that right, as it's contained and expressed in the Constitution, does apply to a certain set of facts.
HATCH: Can the court change the meaning of the words of the constitution? SOTOMAYOR: Courts can't change the meaning of the Constitution. They can apply those words to the facts before them to see if the facts fall within the protections of the constitutional right at issue.
In Marbury vs. Madison, the court -- the Supreme Court said that the Constitution is intended to govern courts, as well as legislatures. Do you agree with that, that it governs both courts and legislatures, the Constitution?
SOTOMAYOR: The Constitution limits the powers of all three branches.
Can the Constitution control judges if judges can change its meaning?
SOTOMAYOR: As one of the senators has pointed out, it is often said that the Supreme Court is not fallible. It's infallible because it's final. So, in terms of the interpretation of the Constitution, that is the function of the court.
That is its function of checking or -- or considering the acts of government vis-a-vis an individual or a state. The Constitution, it is -- that's established by Marbury is interpreted by the court.
One of my fellow Judiciary Committee members was speaking recent -- recently on the Senate floor, and he said that judges may perceive, as he put it -- quote -- "the need for the change -- the need for change" -- unquote -- and make such change through their decisions.
Is that an appropriate role for judges?
SOTOMAYOR: As I have indicated, the role of judges is to interpret both the Constitution and law. Their role is to do both in accordance with their terms. And, so, that is the function of a judge.
Clearly, a judge looks at the terms and tries to, if it's not the -- if it's the Constitution, what are the principles that underlie that provision of the Constitution, and it's informed by precedent. If it's a statute, you use principles of statutory construction, starting always with the words, and you give effect to Congress' intent. That's the role of a judge.
In a speech you gave in March 2006 at the University of Puerto Rico School of Law, you said -- quote -- "I have often said that the basic difference between district court and circuit court judges is, the district court judges do justice for the parties, while circuit court judges do justice for the society as a whole" -- unquote.
I think it's important that we get what you mean by this, especially the way in which appeals court judges do justice for society. And -- and this is even more important in light of your comments at Duke Law School, that -- quote -- "The court of appeals is where policy is made" -- unquote.
Now, you have, I think, tried to distinguish that. And, in this increasingly broad trajectory of -- of judicial power, from the district court to the appeals court, from the parties to society, what does Supreme Court justice do justice for?
SOTOMAYOR: In that speech, as well as the Duke Law School remark, they're all in the context of trying to describe to students or lawyers what the focus of the district court is and the circuit court.
And all of them are talking about precedents. When I was talking about justice for society, I was talking about, we're not looking at what the individual outcome is for the parties before the court, the way that a -- a district court is, because a district court knows that its decision is not binding on anybody else. That is not an invitation for them to follow whim or fancy, but their focus is on this case, what does it mean. It's not affecting anybody else. I'm just going to decide this case.
And, in that speech, as with the Duke remark, looked at in the entirety of the comment, it is, you're doing justice for society when you're -- when you're establishing precedent, because you realize that that precedent is going to bind the cases.
So, you're looking at the effect of those cases on other similar situations. You're looking -- and I have described it this way to other students -- you're looking at what the law is, to announce it, recognizing that it's going to now affect other cases and other people.
SOTOMAYOR: So, your focus is different. District court is looking at the two parties. The circuit court's looking at the law and a holding about the law that will affect many people.
President George H.W. Bush appointed you to the U.S. District Court in 1992. I was here. About a year earlier, he nominated Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme Court, who, like you, was a U.S. circuit court judge. President Bush described him as -- quote -- "delightful and warm, intelligent person, who has great empathy" -- unquote.
President Bush then said that Judge Thomas would decide cases fairly -- quote -- "as the facts and the law require."
In other words, he drew a clear distinction between the human quality of empathy and the judicial quality -- or duty -- excuse me -- of impartiality.
Now, this is obviously very different from -- than -- than saying that a judge's personal empathy is an essential ingredient for deciding cases. Now, which of these is closer to your own view, distinguishing human empathy from judicial impartiality, or mixing them together, so that empathy becomes part of the judicial decision-making process?
SOTOMAYOR: Two presidents have used the word empathy. And...
HATCH: Right. That's why I brought it up.
SOTOMAYOR: And each of them has given it their different meanings.
And I can't speak for their choice of the word or make a choice between what meaning is closer to what I believe or not, because I can state what I believe very simply.
Life experiences help the process of listening and understanding an argument. The law always directs the result in the case. A judge cannot decide cases on the basis of personal feelings, biases, or sympathies.
To the extent I have ever spoken about those things, it was to make sure that one understood and said that a judge always has to guard against those things affecting the outcome of a case.
The question of when it's appropriate, the Supreme Court has said, some emotion is appropriate. Judges, if they're reacting to an argument of a party, that's an appropriate emotion.
Inappropriate is deciding the consequence based on that. There are -- in sentencings, you -- you're asked to look at the effect of a defendant's conduct on victims. Are you ruling on the basis of sympathy? No. But you're being asked on the basis of life experience to understand that. And then you look at that consequence and weigh all the factors that the statute commands you consider.
And then you come out at a reasonable sentence.
HATCH: OK. I -- I accept that.
You gave a particular speech at least five times, as has been mentioned here, over a period of nearly 10 years, both while you were a district court judge and an appeals court judge. And you spoke specifically about some elements of judicial philosophy.
I know that senators discussed some statements from that speech with you yesterday, or from those speeches. I just want to ask you about a few others, statements that you made when you gave this speech on the various occasions.
The first is your response to the thesis that judges must transcend their personal sympathies and prejudices, so that their decisions are based on law, and, as a result, have more fairness and integrity.
Do you agree that transcending personal sympathies and prejudices enhances the fairness and integrity of judicial decisions?
SOTOMAYOR: Yes. HATCH: That's good. I'm going to go through these as fast as I can with you, because I think it's essential. In -- in your speech, you consistently characterize the idea that judges transcend their personal sympathies and prejudices as an aspiration.
You question whether judges can achieve it, even in most cases. Do you believe that transcending personal sympathies and prejudices is a judicial duty or an aspiration?
SOTOMAYOR: When I was speaking about aspiration, I was talking about the fact that we do have personal experiences that may on occasion not permit us to understand an argument. And, so, it's an aspiration in the sense of recognizing that we have those experiences.
SOTOMAYOR: I wasn't talking about that it was -- impartiality was impossible. I was just talking about the obligation of judges...
SOTOMAYOR: ... to monitor themselves from those unconscious influences that have affected their decision-making.
In that same speech, you stated -- quote -- "the aspiration to impartiality is just that. It's an aspiration, because it denies the fact that we are, by our experiences, making different choices than others" -- unquote.
I realize that judges are people. They're not robots or machines. But, here again, you say that impartiality is only an inspir -- an aspiration.
Now, I think you have pretty well tried to explain the...
BLITZER: All right. We're going to break away briefly from the hearing -- Orrin Hatch, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, questioning Sonia Sotomayor.
We will continue our coverage in a moment.
Remember, CNN.com is streaming this hearing uninterrupted.
Our coverage will continue after this.
BLITZER: The confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor to become an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, they have gone into recess once again, taking a little break.
The chairman, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, has just told everyone, go ahead and take a little time off. So, everyone is sort of leaving that room. And it's going to be 10 or 15 minutes, we're told, be -- before the hearing continues.
Orrin Hatch was the last -- the senator to ask questions, Orrin Hatch, the Republican from Utah. He's going to followed now by Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat of California, then another Republican, Chuck Grassley, a Republican of Iowa.
It's going to be interesting. Hatch, Grassley, and maybe Lindsey Graham, those are the three Republicans that some Democrats have always felt, potentially, could vote to confirm Sonia Sotomayor. So, we will see what happens on that front.
Let's check some other news that's unfolding right now.
Fredricka Whitfield is joining us now with more on that -- Fred.
WHITFIELD: Thanks again, Wolf.
Well, there are concerns the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca may increase the spread of the H1N1 virus. Two pilgrims from Iran have contracted the disease. Last month, health officials in Saudi Arabia recommended that pregnant women, children, and the elderly with chronic illnesses avoid the hajj this November. They also recommended, visitors to the country have a seasonal flu vaccine at least two weeks before visiting holy places.
South Carolina's governor is clearing his schedule this week to take a personal trip with his wife. This comes three weeks after Mark Sanford disappeared over Father's Day weekend, without his staff knowing where he was. He then admitted having an affair with an Argentine woman. The governor's spokesman says Sanford remains committed to repairing the damage that he has done to his marriage.
An unusual group of lobbyists taking their case to lawmakers today -- they're survivors of shark bites, and they want Congress to protect their attackers. The Pew Environment Group is organizing the push. It's believed a growing market for fin meat for soup is behind the overfishing that is threatening many shark species.
And actor Robert Redford is a newlywed. A church in Hamburg, Germany, says its pastor performed the ceremony over the weekend for Redford and his longtime girlfriend. Redford's new wife is an abstract artist whose work has been exhibited in a number of countries, including the U.S., Britain, and Germany -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Congratulations to Robert Redford, the newlywed.
All right, now, Fred, stand by. We're going to be getting back to you.
I just want to point out the space shuttle Endeavour, we still don't know if it's going to take off. It's supposed to launch at 6:03 p.m. Eastern, a little bit more than an hour from now. But it's been delayed now for five times. So, we will see if the sixth time is a charm today. If, in fact, it does take off, we will have live coverage coming up in THE SITUATION ROOM.
We will have more of the confirmation hearings of Sonia Sotomayor and all the other news coming up after this.
BLITZER: You're looking at live pictures of the space shuttle Endeavour. It's supposed to take off from the Kennedy Space Center in about an hour, 6:03 p.m. Eastern.
If it does take off, we will have live coverage in THE SITUATION ROOM.
But we're watching the weather. It's already been delayed five times because of the weather. It potentially could be delayed today as well. If it's delayed today -- today, it will be delayed for some time, given the schedule that's there. All right. We will watch the -- the space shuttle Endeavour and let you know if it -- if it does -- finally takes off in about an hour from now. As I say, we will have live coverage if it takes off.
In the meantime, we're watching the confirmation hearings of Sonia Sotomayor. She's the nominee to become the next associate justice of the United States Supreme Court.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is now in recess for a few moments. They're taking a break. They will resume questioning in this, the second round of questioning by the senators of the -- the judge.
The senior Democrat, Dianne Feinstein, of California, she's up next. She's one of two women on the committee, so she's going to be asking her questions. She's a strong supporter of Sonia Sotomayor. She will be followed by Chuck Grassley, one of the senior Republicans. Then, they will go back and forth.
We're anxious -- later today, if we get that far, depending on when they call a recess for the day, Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, we will be anxious to hear his questions. Yesterday, he was very dramatic and very pointed in his questioning, some very tough questions for Sonia Sotomayor, so a lot still to come in these historic hearings.