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Published: Wednesday, 5/27/2009

Push to confirm first Hispanic to Supreme Court

ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON A history-making selection behind him, President Barack Obama is pressing the Senate to quickly confirm federal appeals judge Sonia Sotomayor as the first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court.

Not so fast, say Republicans.

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.

"I'd like it to be a hearing that people can be proud of," said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee. "That means treating the nominee with respect but not minimizing the serious issues that are at stake."

Sessions also said 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," Sessions said.

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."

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.

"They oppose her at their peril," Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said of Republicans.

Obama, eager to begin putting his imprint on the court, is asking that the Senate confirm Sotomayor before Congress' August break. The court begins its new term in October.

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.

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, 54, 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."



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