Sotomayor tied abortion ban, slavery?

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Abortion opponents saw their issue take center stage when Sen. Lindsey Graham questioned Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor about her 12-year tenure with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

In particular, the South Carolina Republican asked Tuesday about legal briefs the group filed arguing for an expansion of abortion rights. In one of those cases, Graham said, the group claimed that denying a woman access to an abortion was a form of slavery. Sotomayor said she never read those briefs, an assertion that abortion opponents say is hard to believe.

A look at the facts of the case:

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GRAHAM SAID: “Well, in their briefs, they argued, and I will submit the quotes to you, that if you deny a low-income woman Medicaid funding, taxpayer funds, to have an abortion, if you deny her that, that’s a form of slavery. And I can get the quotes. Do you agree with that?”

THE FACTS: The 1980 Supreme Court case, Williams v. David Zbaraz, challenged an Illinois law that said state money could not be used to pay for abortions for poor people, except when necessary to save the life of the mother.

The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund board, along with three other organizations, filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court, arguing that banning taxpayer-funded abortions discriminated against poor minority women. At the time, Sotomayor served on the group’s board of directors.

There is no connection to slavery in that brief. After the Supreme Court upheld the Illinois law, however, the PRLDEF joined 285 other civil rights organizations, unions and advocacy groups in asking the court to reconsider. That document does draw a link between abortion rights and slavery, but not quite as explicitly as Graham said.

“Just as Dred Scott v. Sanford refused citizenship to black people, these opinions strip the poor of meaningful citizenship under fundamental law,” the documents say.

The Dred Scott case ruled that slaves are not citizens.

In the abortion case, the civil rights groups argued that, under the Constitution, treating people differently because they are black is the same as treating them differently because they are poor. By citing the Dred Scott case, the lawyers clearly sought to draw a parallel between denying abortion access and slavery. But they did not argue that denying poor women access to free abortions was a form of slavery.

Slavery also came up in the 1991 abortion case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which upheld the right to an abortion. Sotomayor joined others in filing documents in that case, saying that black women saw their right to privacy “trammeled with state sanction during centuries of slavery.”

Again, the documents use slavery to make a civil rights case but don’t say denying access to abortions is slavery.

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SOTOMAYOR SAID: “I wasn’t aware of what was said in those briefs.” She also said, “In an organization like PRLDEF, a board member’s main responsibility is to fundraise.”

THE FACTS: It’s impossible to say, based on the records available, whether Sotomayor ever read those briefs. But she did head the group’s litigation committee during a stretch when the group weighed in on several abortion cases.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Cesar Perales, the head of the legal advocacy group, said Sotomayor had no direct involvement with the group’s legal activities.

“She was on the board of directors, she was not a member of the legal staff, so she was not directly involved in the legal arguments that we presented,” Perales said. “Her role was to help us raise funds, set policy, hire the person who would run the organization.”

The New York Times, in an article investigating Sotomayor’s tenure with the group, reported that she was an active and ardent supporter of its legal efforts.

In her first year with the organization, and as one of 286 groups involved in the 1980 case, it is plausible that Sotomayor didn’t have much to do with it. But abortion opponents have a point when they say Sotomayor must have known the general stance the group was repeatedly taking.

“It’s mind-boggling for her to try to distance herself by saying she didn’t read the brief,” said Charmaine Yoest, head of Americans United for Life.

Sotomayor wasn’t named anywhere in the brief. Did she know the group strongly favored abortion rights? Certainly. Did she know that lawyers used slavery to make their case? Impossible to say based on the information available.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.