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Senate Set to Begin Sotomayor Hearings

Senate Republicans have stepped up criticism of Sonia Sotomayor's record and vow to challenge the Supreme Court nominee next week on positions she has taken on gun rights, affirmative action, freedom of speech and other issues.

Sotomayor's confirmation hearing begins Monday.

"We have a constitutional duty to ask tough and probing questions," said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "She'll have a fair chance to respond."

In television appearances, press conferences and speeches on the Senate floor, Republicans have attacked Sotomayor's record and what they call her judicial activism.

Those criticisms gained new momentum last month after the Supreme Court reversed one of Sotomayor's more controversial rulings - to allow the city of New Haven, Conn., to throw out the results of a firefighter promotion test because no black or Hispanic firefighters passed.

Republicans have a growing sense "that Judge Sotomayor has allowed her personal and political views to cloud her judgment in the courtroom, leading her to favor some groups over others," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

President Barack Obama nominated Sotomayor to replace Justice David Souter, who retired. Obama wants the Senate to vote on her nomination before its August recess.

Republicans complain they're being rushed.

Vice President Joe Biden, former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, predicted Sotomayor "will pass cleanly - it won't even be close."

But Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the committee's current chairman, worries that the debate could get ugly.

"I'm afraid that some senators might cave in to these special interest groups, and I hope they don't, because the Senate's being judged, too," he said.

Sessions, a former Alabama attorney general and former prosecutor, said he doubts that Republicans will filibuster a confirmation vote on Sotomayor.

"We are not in a delay process. We just want to do this right," he said.

Sessions says his own experience - he was rejected for a federal judgeship in 1986 after being accused of making racially insensitive remarks, which he said were misrepresented - makes him especially sensitive to the need to treat Sotomayor fairly.

But he and other Republicans also are scouring Sotomayor's record as a trial judge and her work on the New York-based U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.

Sotomayor has been endorsed by Hispanic groups, law enforcement officials and others.

Some critics have called her a racist, saying her views discriminate against whites, but Republican senators have rejected the racism label.

Leahy said some of Sotomayor's critics would have bashed whomever Obama had nominated.

"If he would have nominated Moses, they would have attacked him," he said. "But I was surprised by the viciousness of the attacks."

Both Democrats and Republicans have noted the historic importance of Obama's choice. Sotomayor, 54, who is of Puerto Rican descent and was raised in a housing project in the Bronx, would be the first Hispanic woman to serve on the high court.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law released a report on Sotomayor's record Thursday that concluded she is "far from being an activist," said Monica Youn, an attorney with the center.

"She is solidly in the mainstream of the 2nd Circuit," Youn said.

Republicans say they also are concerned about Sotomayor's positions on gun rights and whether she can be impartial after serving on the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, a legal advocacy group that filed lawsuits challenging hiring practices that harmed minorities.

Republicans said they also are troubled by comments Sotomayor made in several speeches, notably a 2001 speech in which she said, "I hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

Race has been a touchy issue in the debate.

"This is not about ethnicity. This is not about sex. This is not about race," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the Judiciary Committee. "This is about the temperament of a judicial nominee."

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Contact Deborah Barfield Berry at dberry(AT)gannett.com

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