Video: Committee prepares to judge Sotomayor

updated 7/12/2009 7:48:40 PM ET 2009-07-12T23:48:40

Sonia Sotomayor has decided advantages as she begins the most important trial of her long legal career, a nationally televised consideration of her nomination to be the first Hispanic and just the third woman on the Supreme Court.

Beginning Monday, the daughter of Puerto Rican parents will tell her compelling up-from-poverty personal story to a jury tilted strongly in her favor. Democrats hold a comfortable majority on the Senate Judiciary Committee and a filibuster-resistant 60 votes in the Senate.

Still, Republicans signaled that they will press the 55-year-old New Yorker and veteran federal judge to explain past rulings involving discrimination complaints and gun rights, as well as comments that they say raise doubts about Sotomayor's ability to judge cases fairly.

The sharpest comments about her so far came Sunday from Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the senior Republican on the committee.

The influence of personal decisions
Sotomayor has said repeatedly in speeches over the past 10 years that personal experiences influence a judge's decisions, Sessions said.

"She has criticized the idea that a woman and a man would reach the same result. She expects them to reach different results. I think that's philosophically incompatible with the American system," Sessions said.

Her defenders have tried to paint a picture of Sotomayor as a meticulous judge who "goes out of her way, as a good jurist should, to follow the law, no matter what her sympathies tell her," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who will introduce Sotomayor to the panel.

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the committee chairman, said Sotomayor's 17-year record on the federal bench shows her to be a "mainstream judge."

The questioning of Sotomayor won't even begin until Tuesday, after the 12 Democrats and seven Republicans on the committee use up to 10 minutes each for preliminary remarks and the nominee makes her opening statement.

President Barack Obama chose Sotomayor in late May to take the place of Justice David Souter, who retired last month. The switch would not appreciably alter the balance of the power on the conservative-leaning court.

Obama called Sotomayor on Sunday to wish her luck at the hearings, compliment her for making courtesy calls to 89 senators and express his confidence that she would win Senate approval, the White House said.

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Potential political pitfalls
In choosing Sotomayor, Obama also has put pressure on Republicans who might be forced to temper their opposition because of their need to increase their appeal to Hispanic voters, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, highlighted the potential political pitfalls for Republicans when he noted Sunday that a third of his constituents are Hispanic and that they want Sotomayor judged fairly.

The most fertile ground for Republican questioning appears to be on race and ethnicity, focused on Sotomayor's "wise Latina" comment and the 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 without the same life experience.

By a 5-4 vote last month, the justices agreed with the firefighters, who claimed they were denied promotion 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 Sotomayor and two other federal appeals court judges.

Republicans might use the wise Latina comment and the New Haven case "to imply that Sotomayor is a prisoner of identity politics," said David Garrow, a Cambridge University historian who follows the court.

"A lot of it is going to really depend not on particular answers but on how she comes across as a personality," Garrow said.

'They're going to be wowed'
On that score, Schumer predicted that when the public gets its first long look at Sotomayor, "they're going to be wowed."

The subtext of the hearings has less to do with Sotomayor than with eventual other high court vacancies Obama might get to fill.

"A lot of it is about the future of the Supreme Court and future nominees," said Doug Kendall, president of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center.

The GOP wants to "try to effectively state their vision for the Supreme Court and their concern with where President Obama's nominees could take the court," Kendall said.

Brian Fitzpatrick, a Vanderbilt University law professor who worked for Cornyn during the two most recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings, said, "Even if you can't defeat the nomination, perhaps you will get public opinion a little more behind the Republican party."

Gun rights activists and abortion opponents critical of Sotomayor also want senators to question her aggressively. They are joined by abortion-rights groups, also wary about Sotomayor's largely unknown views on abortion. "Failure to pursue such questions creates dangerous uncertainty regarding a constitutional right that has already been significantly weakened," said the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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