08/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Leahy To GOP: "Stop The Racial Politics" On Sotomayor

The two top officials on the Senate Judiciary Committee left niceties at the door when they held a joint appearance on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday.

Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) accused the Republican Party of playing "racial politics" with the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Sonia Sotomayor, even declaring that the leaders of the GOP had called her a "bigot" and the "head of the KKK."

"I have no idea how many [Republican votes] she'll get in committee or on the floor," said Leahy. "But she will have Republican votes... She deserves it. Now, I understand [Sen.] Mitch McConnell and I've worked with Sen. McConnell on different things. But like the other leaders of the Republican Party, he came out very, very early against her and he doesn't want to change his mind. You had one leader of the Republican Party call her the equivalent of the head of the Ku Klux Klan. Another leader of the Republican Party called her a bigot. To Sen. McConnell's credit, he has not used those things, but the leadership of the Republican Party came out against her long before we ever had the hearing, long before they had a chance to look at her record. I think that's unfair."

"I hope we don't go back to the day when we used to put African Americans up for confirmation and say yes, but you belong to the NAACP so we're really suspicious of you," Leahy added later, refering to Republican concerns about Sotomayor's involvement with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund. "Come on, stop the racial politics," he said.

Leahy later explained that he was referring to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich when he accused the GOP of labeling Sotomayor a bigot.

It was a fiery segment, during which Leahy talked over the protests of his colleague Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the committee's ranking Republican member. When the Alabama Republican finally got the chance to speak, he pleaded that Leahy had greatly distorted the tone and tenor of the hearings.

"Pat, I want to correct something," Sessions said. "No Republican leader said she was a bigot. You've overstated that. There's nothing wrong with us asking about her personal views about positions, legal positions that she took as a member of any organization. That's a normal thing to do. And I don't think that was unfair. She said that she thought she was fairly treated. Other commentators, objective leaders, civil rights leaders have said that. We gave our absolute best to make sure this was a fair hearing, but it had to be vigorous. We had to ask about things that people cared about, her speeches, her prior pleadings that she did and some of her decisions, which are troubling. But Pat, you gave us a fair hearing. I appreciate that. A lot of people felt we were pretty tight on time, but you -- when the hearing came up, we had an opportunity. And I appreciate that."

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