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13 July 2009 

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Sotomayor Faces Tough Questions in Senate

13 July 2009

A week-long Senate Judiciary Committee hearing has begun on President Barack Obama's nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. If confirmed by the Senate, Sotomayor, 54, would become the first Hispanic justice, and only the third woman, to serve on the high court.

Judge Sonia Sotomayor is greeted on Capitol Hill by Sen. Orrin Hatch, right, and Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, at center, 13 Jul 2009
Judge Sonia Sotomayor is greeted on Capitol Hill by Sen. Orrin Hatch, right; Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, at center, 13 Jul 2009
Although she is widely expected to be confirmed by the Senate, the stakes are high as Sotomayor faces a week of tough questions from lawmakers on the the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In nominating her, President Obama cited Sotomayor's rise from a poor Puerto Rican family in the Bronx section of New York City, to elite universities, and 17 years as a federal judge.

President Obama said she would bring "the wisdom accumulated from an inspiring life's journey," but also a commitment to interpreting the law without a particular ideology or agenda.

The Democrat chairing the judiciary committee, Senator Patrick Leahy, referred to criticism that Sotomayor's statements and rulings indicate her personal background might lead her to judge cases unfairly.

"I would trust that all members of this committee here today will reject the efforts of partisans and outside pressure groups that have sought to create a caricature of Judge Sotomayor while belittling her record and her achievements, and her intelligence."

Republicans such as Senator Jeff Sessions assert that approval of Sotomayor would begin a trend in which more value is placed on court nominees who might apply personal biases than a commitment to judging impartially and interpreting the law.

"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 personal background, gender, prejudices or sympathies to sway their decision in favor of or against the parties before the court, said Sessions. "In my view, such a philosophy is disqualifying."

Issues on which Sotomayor will be questioned include her ruling, as part of a three-judge panel, against 19 white and one Hispanic firefighters in New Haven, Connecticut who claimed they were discriminated against. The Supreme Court recently overturned that ruling in 5 to 4 decision.

She will also have numerous opportunities to explain her thinking behind a 2001 statement in which she said "a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who has not lived that life."

Republican criticisms also focus on President Obama's statement in nominating Sotomayor that "empathy" is "an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes."

Critics say this supports their assertion that she would not judge fairly, while Sotomayor's supporters say her judicial record demonstrates a record of impartiality.

Senator Diane Feinstein says Sotomayor satisfies a range of requirements to serve on the court:

"Broad and relevant experience, you satisfy that. Second, a strong and deep knowledge of the law and the Constitution, you satisfy that. Third, a firm commitment to follow the law and you have, and all of the statistics indicate, that," said Feinstein. "A judicial temperament and integrity and you have both of those. And finally, mainstream legal reasoning."

Thirty one witnesses will testify on Sotomayor's nomination, which is President Obama's first opportunity to shape the Supreme Court.

She would replace Justice David Souter who announced his retirement earlier this year, and would become only the second woman currently serving on the court, joining Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

With Democrats holding a 60-vote majority, eventual Senate approval of Sotomayor appears assured. 

Senate Republican Lindsey Graham said barring a "meltdown" by Sotomayor during the hearing, she will be confirmed.

Some Republicans are likely to support Sotomayor's nomination, amid concerns about alienating Hispanic voters who are an important political factor in key U.S. states won by President Obama in 2008.  

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