Conservatives stepped up their criticism of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor on Tuesday, but it was unclear how far Senate Republicans were willing to go to create bumps in what appears to be a smooth road to confirmation for President Barack Obama's first high-court choice.
Even as the Senate's top Republican suggested that Sotomayor let racial bias cloud her rulings, he and other GOP senators refused to say whether they would accede to conservative activists' demands to try to delay a final vote to confirm her until September. At the same time, the National Rifle Association raised what it called "very serious concerns" about Sotomayor based on her stance on weapons rights, yet it stopped short of opposing her, citing its "respect for the confirmation process."
The fresh critiques of Sotomayor came as the American Bar Association, a national lawyers' group, rated her "well-qualified" to be a justice after its members conducted scores of confidential interviews with her colleagues and pored through her record and writings to assess her integrity, qualifications and temperament.
Democrats and civil rights leaders rushed to defend Sotomayor against charges that she's an activist who would allow racial bias to interfere with her decisions.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is to open hearings Monday on Sotomayor's nomination to replace Justice David Souter on the Supreme Court. If confirmed, she would be the first Hispanic to serve there.
The NRA — influential with Republicans and some conservative Democrats — said senators should question Sotomayor on her views on the Second Amendment and curbs on the right to bear arms, and threatened to oppose her if her answers were "hostile or evasive." In a letter to senators, Chris W. Cox, the group's executive director, said Sotomayor had been "dismissive" of the Second Amendment, particularly in an appeals court ruling that held it only limits the federal government — not states.
Meanwhile, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, said Sotomayor's federal appeals court ruling last year against white firefighters alleging reverse discrimination leaves the impression that she allows her agenda to affect her judgment and she favors certain groups.
"It is a troubling philosophy for any judge — let alone one nominated to our highest court — to convert empathy into favoritism for particular groups," McConnell said.
Sotomayor was part of an appeals panel that dismissed the firefighters' challenge to a decision by New Haven, Conn., to scrap a promotion test because too few minorities qualified. The Supreme Court reversed the appeals court last week.
McConnell said Sotomayor may have let her service with a civil rights group that represented Hispanics in job discrimination cases sway her decision. She held leadership roles on the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, now known as LatinoJustice PRLDEF, from 1980 to 1992.
During that time, the group brought several lawsuits in which minority workers claimed they unfairly were denied jobs or promotions in favor of white employees. Republicans, led by Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, say the organization's positions were extreme and that Sotomayor's work there makes her rulings suspect.
Democrats call it a mainstream group. One civil rights leader said Tuesday that Sessions — who was denied a federal judgeship in the mid-1980s after being accused of racist remarks and acknowledging calling the NAACP "un-American" — risked opening old racial wounds with his criticism of Sotomayor's service at PRLDEF.
"We would caution him to tone down his rhetoric," said Benjamin Jealous, the president of the NAACP. "It reminds people of comments that he's made in the past, it reminds people of days when this country was much more pessimistic about race relations ... and it reminds people of a day when the Republican Party made itself the home for politicians with extreme racial sentiments."
Conservative leaders are pressing Senate Republicans to delay a final vote on Sotomayor until September, frustrated with what they call the party's lackluster approach to the debate.
"You should not fear to enter the debate over this president's nominee, and certainly not because she is Hispanic," Manuel Miranda, the chairman of the Third Branch Conference wrote in a letter e-mailed to Republican senators on behalf of the coalition. The letter said drawing out the debate on Sotomayor would be good for the country and help Republicans win back control of the Senate.
GOP senators have given no indication they will do so. McConnell was silent Tuesday when asked whether he would back such a delay, while Sessions, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said "we'll see" whether it would be appropriate.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the judiciary chairman, warned the GOP against holding up the final vote on Sotomayor's confirmation. Republicans "can use their rights in the Senate, but I have a feeling the American public would say: 'What are you afraid of? Why don't you vote?'"