WASHINGTON – Sonia Sotomayor enters confirmation hearings for her historic nomination to the Supreme Court with reason to be confident about the outcome — Democrats have the votes in the Senate to make her the court's first Hispanic and third woman justice.
Hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee begin Monday with opening remarks from the panel's 12 Democrats and 7 Republicans, followed by Sotomayor's own statement that is expected to emphasize her compelling rise from poverty in New York City.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the committee chairman, planned to kick off the proceedings with laudatory remarks that also sought to firmly establish Sotomayor as a judge who follows wherever the law leads her.
"In truth, we do not have to speculate about what kind of a justice she will be because we have seen the kind of judge she has been. She is a judge in which all Americans can have confidence. She has been a judge for all Americans and will be a justice for all Americans," Leahy said in excerpts of his statement that were provided to The Associated Press.
Questioning of Sotomayor will wait for Tuesday.
In the nearly seven weeks since President Barack Obama nominated Sotomayor to replace retiring Justice David Souter, critics have labored without much success to exploit weaknesses in her record. Republican senators also must take care to avoid offending Hispanic voters, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate, by attacking Sotomayor too harshly.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, highlighted the potential political pitfalls for Republicans when he noted on "Fox News Sunday" that a third of his constituents are Hispanic and that they want Sotomayor judged fairly.
Still, Republicans signaled that they will press the 55-year-old New Yorker and veteran federal judge to explain past rulings involving discrimination complaints and gun rights, as well as remarks that they say raise doubts about Sotomayor's ability to judge cases fairly.
The sharpest comments about her so far came Sunday from Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the senior Republican on the committee.
Sotomayor has said repeatedly in speeches over the past 10 years that personal experiences influence a judge's decisions, Sessions said.
"She has criticized the idea that a woman and a man would reach the same result. She expects them to reach different results. I think that's philosophically incompatible with the American system," Sessions said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
Leahy responded that Sotomayor's 17-year record on the federal bench shows her to be a "mainstream judge."
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who will introduce Sotomayor to the panel, predicted that Sotomayor will win significant Republican support and get more than the 78 votes, including 22 Democrats, that John Roberts received in his confirmation as chief justice in 2005. The Senate has 58 Democrats, 40 Republicans and two independents who generally side with the Democrats.
Obama called Sotomayor on Sunday to wish her luck at the hearings, compliment her for making courtesy calls to 89 senators and express his confidence that she would win Senate approval, the White House said.
The most fertile ground for Republican questioning appears to be on race and ethnicity, focused on Sotomayor's "wise Latina" comment and the white firefighters from New Haven, Conn., who won their Supreme Court case last month.
In a speech in 2001, Sotomayor said she hoped a "wise Latina" often would reach better conclusions than a white male without the same life experience.
By a 5-4 vote last month, the high court agreed with the firefighters, who claimed they were denied promotions on account of their race after New Haven officials threw out test results because too few minorities did well. The court reversed a decision by Sotomayor and two other federal appeals court judges.
The two issues could allow Republicans to try to create the impression that Sotomayor is a "prisoner of identity politics," said Cambridge University's David Garrow, an avid court watcher.