US senators split along party lines as the Senate Judiciary Committee began hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor Monday. If confirmed, Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic justice on the top US court.
AFP - Judge Sonia Sotomayor, fighting to become the first Hispanic US Supreme Court justice, assured senators questioning her impartiality Monday that her "fidelity to the law" trumped her personal views.
Seven weeks after US President Barack Obama nominated her to the nine-member bench that serves as the final arbiter of the US Constitution, the appeals court judge, 55, made her first public pleading for confirmation.
"In the past month, many senators have asked me about my judicial philosophy. It is simple: fidelity to the law," Sotomayor told the Senate Judiciary Committee as it kicked off at least four days of hearings.
But Sotomayor, whose confirmation is all but assured, made no apology for past writings in which she vaunted the merits of bringing personal experience to bear on court cases, which Obama had termed her "empathy."
"My personal and professional experiences help me to listen and understand, with the law always commanding the result in every case," she said, in the highlight of a day-long hearing interrupted four times by shouting protesters.
Sotomayor, whose family hails from Puerto Rico, also celebrated her rise from a poor childhood in New York City's hardscrabble Bronx borough to the pinnacle of US judicial life, calling it "uniquely American."
For much of the day-long hearing, Sotomayor sat quietly, often rewarding her Democratic defenders with smiles and nods as they feuded over her temperament and qualifications with Obama's Republican critics.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, the panel's chairman, recalled bitter resistance to the first black, Jewish, and Catholic US Supreme Court nominees, noting "we are in a different era" and praising Sotomayor as rigorously fair.
"She understands that there is not one law for one race or another. There is not one law for one color or another. There is not one law for rich and a different one for poor. There is only one law," said the senator from Vermont.
But the committee's top Republican, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, warned he will not vote for Sotomayor unless convinced that she would follow the law impartially, without letting personal views decide key cases.
"I will not vote for -- 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 in favor of, or against, parties before the court," said Sessions.
"Call it empathy, call it prejudice, or call it sympathy, but whatever it is, it's not law. In truth it's more akin to politics, and politics has no place in the courtroom," he said.
But her confirmation was virtually assured: His Democrats dominate the committee and have, at least on paper, the 60 votes needed to overrun any Republican effort in Senate to stymie the nomination.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham drew knowing laughter when he told Sotomayor: "Unless you have a complete meltdown, you're going to get confirmed."
Sotomayor would replace retiring Justice David Souter on the nine-member court that is the final arbiter of the US Constitution and often confronts volatile political and social issues, including gun control and abortion.
The panel was to hear from 31 witnesses including former FBI director Louis Freeh, who mentored Sotomayor, and Linda Chavez, a conservative activist.
Republicans have given one their 14 witness slots to one of the white firefighters whose claim of racial discrimination Sotomayor rejected -- only to have the US Supreme Court reverse her ruling in late June.
Early on, an anti-abortion protester briefly disrupted the proceedings, shouting: "What about the unborn? Abortion is murder!" before police removed him. Other individual protesters did the same at sporadic intervals.
Sotomayor's rise from her poor childhood in New York to the pinnacle of US justice mirrors Obama's own storybook ascent to power.
Princeton-educated Sotomayor, who is from a Puerto Rican family, would be the second woman currently on the court, alongside Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and would be the 111th justice to serve on the highest US court.
Date created : 2009-07-13