WASHINGTON - A Senate panel began confirmation hearings Monday for President Barack Obama's choice for the U.S. Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, who is almost assured of becoming the first Hispanic and third female justice on the country's top tribunal.
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee focused on Sotomayor's experience and her rise from a childhood in a poor New York neighbourhood. Republicans raised concerns that she would decide cases based on her opinions instead of the law.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Senate Judiciary Committee's senior Republican, said he will not vote for anyone who will not render justice impartially.
"Call it empathy, call it prejudice or call it sympathy, but whatever it is, it's not law," he said. "In truth, it's more akin to politics and politics has no place in the courtroom."
By most figuring, though, Sotomayor has no serious roadblock to serve on the high court. Democrats control the Judiciary panel by a 12-7 margin over Republicans and have the necessary floor votes to elevate the 55-year-old appeals court judge.
In the nearly seven weeks since Obama nominated Sotomayor to replace Justice David Souter, critics have laboured without much success to exploit weaknesses in her record. But Republicans have had to temper their remarks to avoid offending Hispanic voters, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate.
If confirmed, Sotomayor is unlikely to change the court's ideological makeup since she would replace Souter, part of the court's liberal wing and Sotomayor's appointment is not likely to change the court's ideological makeup. Under former president George W. Bush, the court has tended to be more conservative in its rulings in recent years.
In opening remarks, Sen. Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, warned Republicans to tread lightly in the days ahead.
"Let no one demean this extraordinary woman," Leahy said.
Sessions vowed a "respectful tone" and "maybe some disagreements" when lawmakers begin questioning Sotomayor on Tuesday.
He underscored that point a few moments later, saying, "I will not vote for, and no senator should vote for" anyone who will not render justice impartially.
Outside the hearing room, a small group of anti-abortion protesters opposed to her confirmation unfurled a banner that said, "Senators: Stop the Slaughter! Filibuster Sotomayor." A filibuster is a parliamentary delaying tactic. It was unclear whether Sotomayor saw them.
Inside the Senate, there was no talk of a filibuster, under which Republicans would attempt to block a vote on her nomination. Instead, barring a gaffe of major proportions, Sotomayor seemed on her way to confirmation even before Leahy rapped the opening gavel.
Still, Republicans signalled that they will press her to explain past rulings involving discrimination complaints and gun rights, as well as remarks that they say raise doubts about her ability to judge cases fairly.
The most fertile ground for Republican questioning appears to be on race and ethnicity, focused on Sotomayor's "wise Latina" comment and a ruling on 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 who lacked 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 a New York appeals court panel that included Sotomayor.