Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor sought Tuesday to hit back against Republican charges that she would let her background dictate her rulings, telling U.S. senators in both parties that she would follow the law as a justice.
In private meetings that marked her congressional debut, Sotomayor, who would be the high court's first Hispanic and its third woman, explained her views of a judge's role and the impact of her life experiences to leaders of the Judiciary Committee, which will have the first crack at weighing her confirmation. President Barack Obama nominated her for the post last week.
Sotomayor's schedule was packed with quick one-on-one visits with some of the Senate's leading Democratic and Republican members. The roughly half-hour meetings are as important for the courtly tone they set for the beginning of the congressional debate on Sotomayor as for the few moments of candid conversation they offer senators and the nominee.
Barring any huge surprises, the full Senate is expected to confirm Sotomayor. Democrats already control 59 of the 100 seats and Sotomayor is likely to pick up a few Republican votes. Democrats need 60 votes to prevent Republicans from using procedural tactics to derail the nomination. The Senate votes on Supreme Court nominations of any president.
"Life experience shapes who you are ..."
"Ultimately and completely, a judge has to follow the law no matter what their upbringing has been," Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat and the panel chairman, quoted the nominee as saying in their closed-door session.
Leahy had asked Sotomayor, 54, what she meant when she said in 2001 that she hoped her decisions as a "wise Latina" would be better than those of a white male who had not had the same experiences. Prominent Republicans have cited the 2001 remark to call her a racist.
Leahy said the judge told him: "Of course one's life experience shapes who you are, but ... as a judge, you follow the law."
Sen. Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the committee, said Sotomayor used those words with him as well, but he appeared to come away from the meetings unconvinced about Sotomayor's approach and whether she would be an "activist" who tried to set policy from the bench.
"She used those words, and of course the question is what is the law? How does a judge find the law, and what approach to statutory construction do they utilize?" Sessions said.
Sessions, who is to meet Wednesday with Leahy to discuss scheduling Sotomayor's confirmation process, said he thought hearings should wait until September.
"I don't think it's good to rush," he said.
"There's only one law"
Leahy called the criticism against Sotomayor "among the most vicious attacks that have been received by anybody" and said the rhetoric demands hearings, "sooner than later." Democrats hope to begin the sessions as early as the first full week of July.
Leahy said he asked the judge whether he could repeat publicly what she told him privately during their meeting about how her personal experiences as the New York-born daughter of Puerto Rican parents who was reared in a housing project and went on to Princeton and Yale universities before ascending to the highest legal echelons would shape her rulings.
Leahy quoted Sotomayor as saying, "There's not one law for one race or another. There's not one law for one color or another. There's not one law for rich, a different one for poor. There's only one law."
Radio host Rush Limbaugh and former House Speaker New Gingrich have both branded Sotomayor a racist, and Limbaugh went on to compare choosing her for the high court to nominating former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
Leahy defended Sotomayor on Tuesday, saying he was proud of his own Irish-Italian background and his wife's French-Canadian background. "Does that make us racist?" he said. "She is not a racist."
His comments came as a new Associated Press-GfK poll showed that Americans have a more favorable first impression of Sotomayor than they did for any of former President George W. Bush's nominees to the high court, and backs her confirmation in higher numbers.
Sotomayor was scheduled to meet with 10 senators during her first day on Capitol Hill, retreating to Vice President Joe Biden's office between sessions to huddle with White House handlers, a team heavy with confirmation battle veterans who are guiding her nomination.
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