Push to confirm first Hispanic to Supreme Court

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May 27, 2009 7:40:56 AM PDT
The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee said Wednesday he doesn't foresee a filibuster against Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, even though GOP lawmakers want to closely scrutinize her legal philosophy. "The nominee has serious problems," Sen. Jeff Sessions said in a nationally broadcast interview. "But I would think that we would all have a good hearing, take our time, and do it right. And then the senators cast their vote up or down based on whether or not they think this is the kind of judge that should be on the court."

"I don't sense a filibuster in the works," the Alabama Republican said, after President Barack Obama's call for the Senate to install his history-making choice of the 54-year-old Sotomayor to succeed Justice David Souter on the high court. She would be the first Hispanic justice to serve there.

The GOP faces an uphill battle in defeating the New York-born daughter of Puerto Rican parents, but Republicans are promising a thorough and perhaps lengthy hearing process that scrutinizes her record and judicial philosophy.

Democrats hold 59 votes in the Senate, more than enough to confirm Sotomayor but not quite enough to stop a vote-blocking filibuster if Republicans should attempt one. Still, seven Republican senators currently serving backed Sotomayor's 1998 nomination to the appeals court covering New York, Vermont and Connecticut, and she was first nominated to be a federal judge by Republican President George H.W. Bush.

Sessions did say that Sotomayor "has a good resume. It's the kind of resume I like to see in a nominee." He quickly added that he wants to know "whether she has a tendency to be aggressive" on the bench and impose her own beliefs.

The senator said Tuesday it was "possible" he could back Sotomayor's nomination, although he was one of several Republicans who opposed her when she came before the Senate as a nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1998. "We ought to look at her record fresh," he said.

One possibly complicating issue surfaced Wednesday morning as Sessions appeared in a joint interview with Sen. Chuck Schumer on a nationally broadcast news show.

Sessions and Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, disagreed about the significance of a remark Sotomayor was videotaped making at a law seminar, where at one point she commented that federal appellate courts "make policy."

Sessions called that statement "troubling" and said she needs to explain it to the committee. Schumer said the statement had been taken out of context, and that Sotomayor had quickly added that she was not advocating such an activist role.

Republicans "oppose her at their peril," Schumer said earlier.

Any Republican effort to block Sotomayor's confirmation could be risky for a party still reeling from last year's elections and struggling to gain back lost ground with Hispanics, the fastest-growing part of the population and one that is increasingly active politically.

Sessions acknowledged as much Wednesday, saying the GOP needs to "broaden its tent."

Sotomayor's personal story and her academic and legal credentials earn her respect from all quarters, but conservatives see plenty to criticize in her rulings and past statements. They describe her as a judicial activist who would put her feelings above the Constitution.

Sotomayor has said that personal experiences "affect the facts that judges choose to see."

"I simply do not know exactly what the difference will be in my judging," she said in a speech in 2001. "But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage."

The White House and its allies, including Hispanic groups with broad reach into communities throughout the country, are readying a major push to persuade more GOP senators to back her confirmation.

"We want people to realize that this is kind of like voting for president," said Estuardo Rodriguez, a spokesman for Hispanics for a Fair Judiciary, which is leading a coalition of organizations that plans to push for the judge's speedy confirmation. "You can actually call your senator and say: 'I want this. I want you to vote for Sonia Sotomayor.'"

The top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said, "We will thoroughly examine her record to ensure she understands that the role of a jurist in our democracy is to apply the law evenhandedly, despite their own feelings or personal or political preferences."

Sotomayor would join Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the second woman on the court and just the third in its history. She would replace liberal Justice David Souter, thereby maintaining the court's ideological divide. A number of important cases have been divided by 5-4 majorities, with conservative- and liberal-leaning justices split 4-4 and Justice Anthony Kennedy providing the decisive vote.

Born in the South Bronx, Sotomayor lost her father at a young age and watched her mother work two jobs to provide for her and her brother. Her path has soared ever since: Princeton University and Yale Law School, then positions as a commercial litigator, federal district judge and appellate judge.

"What you've shown in your life is that it doesn't matter where you come from, what you look like or what challenges life throws your way," Obama said as Sotomayor stood at his side at a packed White House event to announce her nomination Tuesday. "No dream is beyond reach in the United States of America."

Said the nominee, "I am an ordinary person who has been blessed with extraordinary opportunities and experiences."

Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, called Sotomayor's nomination "a monumental day for Latinos. Finally, we see ourselves represented on the highest court in the land."

She said Obama's choice recognized "that excellence and diversity are not mutually exclusive."

Sessions and Schumer appeared on NBC's "Today" show and Sessions also was interviewed on CNN.

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Associated Press writer Ben Feller contributed to this report.

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