WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats praised Sonia Sotomayor as a Hispanic pioneer well qualified for the Supreme Court today, but Republicans questioned her impartiality and President Barack Obama's views as well at the start of confirmation hearings.
Despite Republican misgivings, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Sotomayor, "Unless you have a complete meltdown, you're going to get confirmed."
"And I don't think you will" have a meltdown, he added quickly as Sotomayor sat listening, her face in a half-smile.
Graham spoke after Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, praised Sotomayor in remarks that opened the proceedings in a packed Senate hearing room. "She's been a judge for all Americans. She'll be a justice for all Americans," he said.
Leahy likened Sotomayor to other judicial pioneers, citing Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice on the high court, as well as Louis Brandeis, the first Jew, and Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman.
"Let no one demean this extraordinary woman," Leahy said in a warning to committee Republicans to tread lightly in the days ahead.
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the senior Republican, vowed a "respectful tone" and "maybe some disagreements" when lawmakers begin questioning Sotomayor on Tuesday.
Moments later, he took aim at Sotomayor's 2001 statement that her standing as a "wise Latina woman" would sometimes allow her to reach a better decision than a white male.
"I will not vote for, and 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," he said.
"Call it empathy, call it prejudice or call it sympathy, but whatever it is, it's not law," Sessions said. "In truth, it's more akin to politics, and politics has no place in the courtroom."
That was a reference to Obama's declaration — made before he named Sotomayor — that he wanted a person of empathy on the high court.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., made a spirited rebuttal later in the morning. "The empathy that President Obama saw in you has a constitutionally proper place" in the judiciary," he said.
Obama named Sotomayor, 55 and a child of the South Bronx, to replace retiring Justice David Souter.
While Souter was appointed by President George H.W. Bush, a Republican, he became a reliable member of the court's liberal faction.
If confirmed, Sotomayor is not expected to alter the court's balance on controversial issues such as abortion and affirmative action.
Sotomayor, who has served 17 years as a federal judge, including 11 on the appeals court, listened silently from her seat at the witness table a few feet away as the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee made introductory remarks.
Her turn to speak came next, to be followed by two or three days of questioning from the panel that will cast the first votes on her appointment.
Leahy and Sessions escorted Sotomayor to her seat before the hearing began into the first Supreme Court nominee by a Democratic president in 15 years.
Outside, a small group of anti-abortion protesters opposed to her confirmation unfurled a banner that said, "Senators: Stop the Slaughter! Filibuster Sotomayor." It was unclear whether Sotomayor saw them.
Less than an hour into the hearing, one anti-abortion protester began shouting inside the room, and was quickly hustled away.
From its opening moments, the hearing was drenched in racial politics.
"The Hispanic element of this hearing is important, but ... this is mostly about liberal and conservative politics more than it is about anything else," said Graham.
In the Senate as a whole, 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, as Graham said, Sotomayor seemed on her way to confirmation even before Leahy rapped the opening gavel.
Graham hinted that he would vote to confirm Sotomayor, but he was the only Republican to sound so inclined.
And even he joined other GOP lawmakers in questioning her ability to serve as an impartial justice.
Said Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.: "From what she has said, she appears to believe that her role is not constrained to objectively decide who wins based on the weight of the law but who, in her opinion, should win."
"The factors that will influence her decisions apparently include her gender and Latina heritage and foreign legal concepts that get her creative juices going." he added.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, broadened that line of skepticism to include Obama. He noted that as a senator, the president opposed Janice Rogers Brown, an African-American appointee to the appeals court by President George W. Bush.
"He argued that the test of a qualified judicial nominee is whether she can set aside her personal views" and decide cases on their merits, Hatch said.
He also said Obama noted at the time that while a nominee's gender, race and life story "are important, they cannot distract from the focus on the kind of judge she will be."
Hatch added, "But today, President Obama says that personal empathy is an essential ingredient in judicial decisions."
In the nearly seven weeks since Sotomayor's nomination, critics have labored without much success to exploit weaknesses in her record.
Even as they try, Republican senators also must take care to avoid offending Hispanic voters, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate by attacking Sotomayor too harshly.
Still, Republicans signaled 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.
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.
What they said, what they meant
In the polite but white-hot world of confirmation hearings, senators and witnesses don't always say what they want to say. So they speak in code.
Here's a translation of what was said in Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearing, and what the players actually meant:
What she said: "If I introduced everybody that's family-like," Sotomayor said with a strong voice and a smile, "we'd be here all morning."
What she meant: I may not look like all of you but, trust me, I'm no different from every other family-loving American. I'm surrounded by people who love me.
What he said: "Judge Sotomayor's journey to this hearing room," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., "is a truly American story."
What he meant: If you love America, you'll love Sotomayor — or at least vote for her.
What he said: "The confirmation of Justice Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish-American to be nominated to the high court, was a struggle ripe with anti-Semitism," Leahy said. "Likewise, the first Catholic nominee had to overcome the argument that, as a Catholic, he'd be dominated by the pope."
What he meant: Criticize Sotomayor at your own risk. You don't want to sound racist.
What he said: "Let no one demean this extraordinary woman," Leahy said.
What he meant: Criticize Sotomayor at your own risk. You don't want to sound sexist.
What he said: "I expect this hearing and resulting debate will be characterized by a respectful tone, a discussion of serious issues, a thoughtful dialogue and maybe some disagreements," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, the committee's senior Republican.
What he meant: This is a lifetime appointment, folks. We're not going to roll over and play dead.
What he said: "Politics has no place in the courtroom," Sessions said.
What he meant: Democratic politics has no place in the courtroom.
What he said: "Abortion is murder!" shouted a protester in the hearing room.
What he meant: Sotomayor supports abortion rights! (Sotomayor has not ruled in any cases that squarely confronted the right to abortion. As an appeals court judge she dismissed a challenge to the so-called global gag rule, deciding against an abortion rights group. But in her opinion she used the phrases "anti-abortion" and "pro-choice," typically used by the abortion rights side.)
What he said: "Your 'wise Latina' comment starkly contradicts a statement by Justice O'Connor that 'a wise old woman and a wise old man would eventually reach the same conclusion in a case,' " said Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
What he meant: You played the race card. So can I. (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.)
What he said: "Unless you have a complete meltdown you're going to get confirmed," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "And I don't think you will."
What he meant: But everybody's going to be watching to see if you melt down. I hope my supporters know there's nothing I can do to block your confirmation.
What he said: "My inclination is that elections matter," Graham said.
What he meant: Barack Obama won, so will you.