WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama named federal appeals judge Sonia Sotomayor as the country's first Hispanic Supreme Court justice Tuesday, praising her as "an inspiring woman" with both the intellect and compassion to interpret the constitution wisely.
Obama said Sotomayor has more experience as a judge than any current member of the high court had when nominated, adding she has earned the "respect of colleagues on the bench," the admiration of lawyers who appear in her court and "the adoration of her clerks."
"My heart today is bursting with gratitude," Sotomayor said from the White House podium moments after being introduced by Obama.
If confirmed by the Senate, she would join Justice Ruth Ginsburg as the second woman on the current court, the third in history. She would succeed retiring Justice David Souter.
Obama and Sotomayor both noted the historic nature of the appointment. The president said a Hispanic on the court would mark another step toward the goal of "equal justice under law."
Sotomayor, 54, said she grew up in poor surroundings and never dreamed she would one day be nominated for the highest court.
Obama has said he hopes she can take her place before the justices begin their new term in October.
Democrats hold a large majority in the Senate, and barring the unexpected, Sotomayor's confirmation should be assured.
The Senate Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, issued a statement that said: "Senate Republicans will treat Judge Sotomayor fairly. But 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 is a self-described "Newyorkrican" who grew up in a Bronx housing project after her parents moved to New York from Puerto Rico. She has dealt with diabetes since age 8 and lost her father at age 9, growing up under the care of her mother in humble surroundings. As a girl, inspired by the Perry Mason television show, she knew she wanted to be a judge.
A graduate of Princeton University and Yale Law School, a former prosecutor and private lawyer, Sotomayor became a federal judge for the Southern District of New York in 1992.
As a judge, she has a bipartisan pedigree. She was first appointed by a Republican, president George H.W. Bush, then named an appeals judge by president Bill Clinton in 1997.
At her Senate confirmation hearing more than a decade ago, she said, "I don't believe we should bend the constitution under any circumstance. It says what it says. We should do honour to it."
In one of her most memorable rulings as federal district judge, Sotomayor essentially salvaged baseball in 1995, ruling with players over owners in a labour strike that had led to the cancellation of the World Series.
As an appellate judge, she sided with the city of New Haven, Conn., in a discrimination case brought by white firefighters after the city threw out results of a promotion exam because two few minorities scored high enough. Ironically, that case is now before the Supreme Court.
Given Sotomayor's selection, any decision to filibuster would presumably carry political risks - Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the population and an increasingly important one politically.
One conservative group did not wait for the formal announcement. Wendy Long of the Judicial Confirmation Network, issued a statement calling Sotomayor a "liberal judicial activist of the first order who thinks her own personal political agenda is more important that the law as written."
Abortion rights have been a flashpoint in several recent Supreme Court confirmations, although Sotomayor has not written any controversial rulings on the subject.