Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic Supreme Court nominee in history, vowed loyalty to "the impartiality of our justice system" Monday, confronting Republican skeptics at Senate hearings suffused with racial politics but all but certain to lead to her confirmation.
"My personal and professional experiences help me to listen and understand, with the law always commanding the result in every case," the 55-year old Sotomayor said in her first substantive remarks in public since President Barack Obama nominated her seven weeks ago.
Her comments amounted to a polite but firm rebuttal to Republicans who have criticized her 2001 comment that a "wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences" might make better rulings than a white male.
Despite GOP misgivings, Democrats command a large majority in the committee and the Senate as a whole, and there seemed virtually no doubt about the ultimate outcome.
"Unless you have a complete meltdown, you're going to get confirmed," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told her. "And I don't think you will" have a meltdown, he added quickly as Sotomayor sat listening, her face in a half-smile.
She'll answer questions Tuesday following Monday's day of speechmaking by committee members and her own five-minute statement.
A 'uniquely American' life
Unlike senators who will vote on her appointment, Sotomayor made no overt reference to her place in history as the daughter of Puerto Rican parents who moved to New York. Instead, she said her life has been "uniquely American," and she recalled a childhood in a south Bronx housing project.
"I want to make one special note of thanks to my mother," she said. "I am here today because of her aspirations and sacrifices for my brother Juan and me."
She turned as she spoke, whispering a thank-you to her mother, seated one row behind her in the packed hearing room.
Sotomayor spoke after listening for hours as Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee praised her as a pioneer well qualified for the high court and Republicans questioned her impartiality and accused Obama of adhering to a double standard in selecting her.
At times, senators of both parties seemed intent on trying to settle old scores at the hearings for the first high court nominee picked by a Democrat in 15 years.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., observed acidly that the current court "has not kept the promises of modesty or humility made when President Bush nominated Justices Roberts and Alito."
A short while earlier, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said that as a senator, Obama had opposed Janice Rogers Brown, an African-American and Bush appointee to the appeals court.
"He argued that the test of a qualified judicial nominee is whether she can set aside her personal views" and decide cases on their merits, Hatch said of the president. "But today, President Obama says that personal empathy is an essential ingredient in judicial decisions."
A judge with empathy
That was a reference to the president's statement that he wanted a justice who had empathy as well as a sterling legal resume. Republicans have sought repeatedly to exploit the president's remarks in recent weeks. Often, they use it in conjunction with Sotomayor's 2001 statement that as a "wise Latina" she might be a better judge in some cases than a white male.
Obama named Sotomayor to replace Justice David Souter, who went home to New Hampshire after retiring last month.
While Souter was appointed nearly two decades ago by President George H.W. Bush, a Republican, he became a reliable member of the court's liberal bloc. As a result, if she is confirmed, Sotomayor is not expected to alter the court's balance on controversial issues such as abortion and affirmative action.
Sotomayor walked into the hearing room escorted by senators and wearing a white supporting boot for her right ankle, which she injured several days after she was tapped for the court.
Long days of questioning ahead
She spoke for only about five minutes at the end of the day's session but faces long days of questioning on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Apart from raising questions about her impartiality, Republicans have served notice they will focus on the issues of gun ownership, abortion, and a ruling on white firefighters from New Haven, Conn., who won their case last month when the Supreme Court reversed a decision by a New York appeals court panel that included Sotomayor.
GOP Sen. Graham's prediction of confirmation appeared to unsettle at least one other Republican. "Lindsey and I might have a different definition of meltdown, so I'm not going to predict what will happen," said Sen. Jon Kyl, of Arizona, the Senate's second-ranking Republican.
Graham was the only senator of either party to touch openly on the underlying politics of the nomination — that Republicans must be careful to keep faith with their conservative constituents, yet avoid appearing mean-spirited in questioning a nominee who represents the fastest-growing segment of the electorate.
"The Hispanic element of this hearing is important, but ... this is mostly about liberal and conservative politics more than it is about anything else," he said.
Graham hinted that he would vote to confirm Sotomayor, noting that Obama had won the election, and with it, the right to nominate justices.
But he was the only Republican to sound so inclined.
Role of racial politics
The role of racial politics in the day's proceedings became clear within minutes after Sen. Patrick Leahy, the committee chairman, rapped the opening gavel.
"She's been a judge for all Americans. She'll be a justice for all Americans," said the Vermont Democrat.
Leahy likened Sotomayor to other judicial pioneers, citing Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice, 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, promised a "respectful tone" and "maybe some disagreements" when lawmakers begin questioning Sotomayor on Tuesday.
"I will not vote for, and no senator should vote for an individual nominated by any president who believes it is acceptable for a judge to allow their own personal background, gender, prejudices or sympathies to sway their decision," he said.
"Call it empathy, call it prejudice or call it sympathy, but whatever it is, it's not law," Sessions said. "In truth, it's more akin to politics, and politics has no place in the courtroom."
But Republicans also lined up to note the historic nature of the day.
"I would hope every American is proud that a Hispanic woman has been nominated to sit on the Supreme Court," said Kyl.
The hearing was interrupted three times by protests opposed to abortion. Each time, police hustled a demonstrator from the room.