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Battle lines are drawn on Sotomayor hearings

The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee said Wednesday he doesn't foresee a filibuster against Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Republicans see little chance of blocking Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination, a key GOP senator conceded Wednesday. But senators and advocacy groups are still girding for this summer's battle — partly with an eye toward raising money and perhaps preparing for Barack Obama's next nominee.

Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he didn't foresee a filibuster, essentially the only way Republicans could try to stop Sotomayor since Democrats control the Senate. Still, he made it clear that Republicans were ready to raise pointed questions about whether Sotomayor, the first Hispanic nominee to the high court, would let her personal life color her legal opinions — and whether that's appropriate for a Supreme Court justice.

"We have an absolute constitutional duty to make sure that any nominee, no matter what their background and what kind of life story they have, that we examine that so the American people can know that the person we give a lifetime appointment to ... will be faithful to the law and not allow their personal views to influence decision-making," Sessions said in an interview on NBC's "Today."

Organizations that have been preparing for a major confirmation battle — and that depend on such fights to raise money, motivate supporters and galvanize enthusiasm for their agendas — made it clear they don't intend to sit out the debate, filibuster or no. The debate over Sotomayor could also lay groundwork for fights over later high court nominations the president might make.

Conservative groups kicked off a broad effort to persuade the public that Sotomayor, now a federal appeals judge, is an activist who would impose personal views and ethnic and gender biases on her interpretation of the law and the Constitution.

"Equal justice under law — or under attack?" a Web ad by the Judicial Confirmation Network asks. "America deserves better" than Sotomayor, it concludes.

The White House and liberal groups are hitting back with their own campaign to introduce Sotomayor to the public as an experienced and fair judge whose background gives her a better understanding of how the court affects real people and their lives.

"Principled. Fair-minded. Independent," asserts a TV spot to be aired by the Center for Constitutional Values.

The dueling messages sketched the battle lines for what promise to be closely watched Senate hearings on Sotomayor's nomination, with heavy political consequences for both parties.

From a childhood in the Bronx to her confirmation as a Supreme Court justice.

Democrats, signaling that they hope to score political points against Republicans in the debate over Sotomayor's nomination, e-mailed contributors telling them the GOP was "ready to obstruct." Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the head of the party's Senate campaign committee, wrote that "we have a fight on our hands."

The judge's Capitol Hill debut could come as early as next week, when top aides said she could begin making personal "courtesy calls" to Senate leaders and members of the Judiciary Committee.

For now, many of the senators who hold the judge's fate in their hands are scattered in home states across the country or destinations around the world during their weeklong congressional break. There's little public partisan debate about Sotomayor's nomination.

In private, the 54-year-old Sotomayor — a veteran of the federal bench who was reared in a Bronx housing project and attended Princeton and Yale en route to the highest echelons of the legal profession — phoned key senators as she began preparing to face them in high-stakes hearings.

Since President Barack Obama announced her nomination Tuesday, she has spoken with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, as well as Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., the Judiciary chairman, and Sessions.

In interviews Wednesday, Sessions acknowledged that his party has to "broaden its tent" — a nod to warnings from strategists in both parties who say the GOP, struggling to draw a more diverse base, has to tread carefully in its treatment of Sotomayor, the New York-born daughter of Puerto Rican parents. But he said that won't stop Republicans from scrutinizing her record and probing her fitness for the court.

Staffers on the Judiciary panel, which will run hearings on Sotomayor's nomination, worked on researching her record and released a detailed, 10-page questionnaire the judge will have to answer in advance of the public session she will undergo with senators. It asks Sotomayor to divulge personal, financial and employment information and provide copies of all her writings, speeches, interviews and opinions. She also has to list any potential conflicts of interest and describe how she would resolve them and reveal details about her nomination, including whether she was asked by anyone how she would rule on any potential Supreme Court case or issue and how she responded.

Democratic aides on the panel were to meet Thursday with Cynthia Hogan, Vice President Joe Biden's counsel, to plot strategy.

Meanwhile, the White House kept up the campaign that was set in motion with the announcement of her selection. They arranged a conference call for reporters with six legal experts and attorneys who are Sotomayor boosters to rebut charges that she would bring a personal agenda to the court or strive to use rulings to make policy.

"Judge Sotomayor is not the kind of judge who thinks it is her job to fix every social ill in the world," said Kevin Russell, a lawyer who has argued before her.

Wendy Long, counsel for the Judicial Confirmation Network, said Republicans would oppose Sotomayor because of statements and writings that suggest she bases her decisions at least in part on her gender, ethnicity and background.

"Republicans actually believe the Constitution means something," Long said. "They don't believe demographics matter or gender matters; they believe the rule of law matters, and people who vote Republican actually believe in those principles."

Conservatives point with particular concern to a 2001 speech Sotomayor made at the University of California at Berkeley Law School in which she said that, "Our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions." She added, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

At the White House, spokesman Robert Gibbs labored to answer questions about that statement, ultimately resorting to admonishing reporters not to pluck one remark out of a larger speech and an extensive record of rulings and writings.

"We can all move past YouTube snippets and half-sentences and actually look at the honest-to-God record," Gibbs said. "I think she's talking about the unique experiences that she has."

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, in a blog posting, said the comment suggested that Sotomayor was a "Latina woman racist" whose nomination should be withdrawn. Gibbs retorted, "I think it is probably important for anybody involved in this debate to be exceedingly careful with the way in which they've decided to describe different aspects of this impending confirmation."