Sotomayor Hearing Starts With Praise From Dems, Caution From Republicans

July 13, 2009 - 10:51 AM
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Washington (AP) - On the cusp of history, Sonia Sotomayor listened intently in a packed Senate hearing room Monday as lawmakers began confirmation hearings on her appointment as the nation's first Hispanic Supreme Court justice.
 
"She's been a judge for all Americans. She'll be a justice for all Americans," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Judiciary Committee and an avid supporter of the nomination.
 
In opening remarks, Leahy likened Sotomayor to other judicial pioneers, citing Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice seated on the high court, as well as Louis Brandeis, the first Jew, and Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman.
 
"Let no one demean this extraordinary woman," Leahy said in a warning to committee Republicans to tread lightly in the days ahead.
 
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the senior Republican, vowed a "respectful tone" and "maybe some disagreements" when lawmakers begin questioning Sotomayor on Tuesday.
 
He underscored that point a few moments later, saying, "I will not vote for, and no senator should vote for" anyone who will not render justice impartially.
 
"Call it empathy, call it prejudice or call it sympathy, but whatever it is, it's not law," he said. "In truth, it's more akin to politics and politics has no place in the courtroom."
 
That was a clear reference to President Obama's declaration -- made before he named Sotomayor -- that he wanted a person of empathy on the high court.
 
Obama named Sotomayor, 55 and a child of the South Bronx, to replace retiring Justice David Souter.
 
Leahy and Sessions escorted Sotomayor to her seat before the hearing began into the first Supreme Court nominee by a Democratic president in 15 years.
 
Outside, a small group of anti-abortion protesters opposed to her confirmation unfurled a banner that said, "Senators: Stop the Slaughter! Filibuster Sotomayor." It was unclear whether Sotomayor saw them.
 
Inside the Senate, there was no talk of a filibuster, under which Republicans would attempt to block a vote on her nomination. Instead, barring a gaffe of major proportions, Sotomayor seemed on her way to confirmation even before Leahy rapped the opening gavel.
 
The day's schedule included speeches from all 19 lawmakers on the committee, 12 Democrats and 7 Republicans, followed by Sotomayor's opening statement.
 
Questioning of Sotomayor will wait for Tuesday.
 
In the nearly seven weeks since Sotomayor's nomination, critics have labored without much success to exploit weaknesses in her record.
 
Even as they try, Republican senators also must take care to avoid offending Hispanic voters, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate by attacking Sotomayor too harshly.
 
Still, Republicans signaled that they will press her to explain past rulings involving discrimination complaints and gun rights, as well as remarks that they say raise doubts about her ability to judge cases fairly.
 
The most fertile ground for Republican questioning appears to be on race and ethnicity, focused on Sotomayor's "wise Latina" comment and a ruling on white firefighters from New Haven, Conn., who won their Supreme Court case last month.
 
In a speech in 2001, Sotomayor said she hoped a "wise Latina" often would reach better conclusions than a white male who lacked the same life experience.
 
By a 5-4 vote last month, the high court agreed with the firefighters, who claimed they were denied promotions on account of their race after New Haven officials threw out test results because too few minorities did well. The court reversed a decision by a New York appeals court panel that included Sotomayor.