"Americans have the right to go into our federal courts and have their cases judged b


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"Americans have the right to go into our federal courts and have their cases judged b

The lead plaintiff in the New Haven firefighter case central to Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination said Thursday that the federal appellate court judge ruled in his case based on "politics" and "personal feelings" -- and not the law.
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"Americans have the right to go into our federal courts and have their cases judged based on the Constitution and our laws, not on politics and personal feelings," Frank Ricci, the lead plaintiff in the case Ricci v. DeStefano, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sotomayor was one of three judges who unanimously dismissed the claim of white firefighters in New Haven, Conn., who alleged racial discrimination over the city's decision to scrap a promotions exam after too few minorities scored well -- a ruling that was overturned 5-4 by the Supreme Court last month.

"Achievement is neither limited nor determined by one's race but by one's skills, dedication, commitment, and character. Ours is not a job that can be handed out without regard to merit and qualifications," Ricci said. "Enduring over five years of court proceedings took a toll on us and our families. But at some point we began to understand that this case was no longer about the 20 of us but about so many other Americans who had lost faith in the court system because of what happened to us."

Sotomayor has said repeatedly that her panel was bound by precedent, an assertion that was challenged in an opinion by fellow Judge Jose Cabranes, her one-time mentor.

Ricci was one of several witnesses -- including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- requested by the committee to testify on the last day of Sotomayor's confirmation hearing to become the first Hispanic justice to sit on the high court.

Republicans cleared the way Thursday for a Senate vote next month to confirm the federal court judge.

"I look forward to you getting that vote before we recess in August," Sen. Jeff Sessions, the senior Republican on the committee, said.

Another Republican, Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., also hinted Thursday that he intended to vote for Sotomayor, telling the judge, "We'll see what your future holds, but I think it's going to be pretty bright."

He also said that while some of the judge's speeches "bugged the hell out of me," her rulings were "generally in the mainstream."

Graham and the six other Republicans on the committee have repeatedly grilled Sotomayor over the course of the three-day hearing on her controversial speeches and past rulings -- attempting to cast doubt on her ability to judge fairly and without bias.

Not all Republicans, however, are convinced Sotomayor should be confirmed. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-KY, became the fourth senator Thuresday to announce a "no" vote for the nominee.

Sotomayor said Thursday she "regets" that her "wise Latina" remark offended some people, but stopped short of renouncing the speech that has become the Republicans' main line of attack against her.

"I regret that I have offended some people. I believe that my life demonstrates that that was not my intent to leave the impression that some have taken from my words," Sotomayor told Graham during questioning.

Sotomayor's unwillingness to be pinned down on almost any topic -- including abortion rights and gun control -- has frustrated even some friendly Democrats.

"I think your record is exemplary, Judge Sotomayor, exemplary," said Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., who quit the Republican Party earlier this year. "I'm not commenting about your answers, but your record is exemplary."

Sotomayor, 55, has been a federal judge for 17 years, the last 11 on the appeals court in New York. President Obama nominated her to take the seat of Justice David Souter, who retired last month.

A vote by the full Senate to confirm her is expected in early August, time enough to allow her to take the judicial oath and participate in a scheduled hearing Sept. 9 on a case involving federal campaign finance law.

Despite her years of service, Republicans continued to focus more on Sotomayor's writings and speeches. They said they were still worried Sotomayor would bring bias and a political agenda to the bench.

"It's muddled, confusing, backtracking on issue after issue," complained Sessions. "I frankly am a bit disappointed in the lack of clarity and consistency in her answers."

But Republicans conceded that Sotomayor had not committed a major mistake that would be necessary to derail her nomination to be the first Hispanic and third woman to serve on the high court.

In hours of questioning over three days, Sotomayor has warded off frequent attempts to get her to weigh in on any major issue that could come before her as a justice.

In one lengthy exchange with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a prominent abortion opponent, Sotomayor firmly declined to give her opinion in a hypothetical case involving a woman who learns her 38-week-old fetus has spina bifida, a potentially serious birth defect.

All she would do is relate the state of abortion law as defined by the Supreme Court.

In 1992, the court "reaffirmed the core holding of Roe v. Wade that a woman has a constitutional right to terminate her pregnancy in certain cases," she said, adding that the ruling said the court should consider whether any state regulation "has an undue burden on the woman's constitutional right."

Echoing comments she made on other topics throughout the day, Sotomayor said, "All I can say to you is what the court's done and the standard that the court has applied. We don't make policy choices on the court; we look at the case before us."

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